Carved stone balls from Scotland are an enigmatic class of objects. They seem to date mainly to the Late Neolithic period (c. 3000 - 2500 BC), and are made of various stones ranging from sandstone to granite. They are all of a relative similar size and are decorated with carved evenly-spaced patterns of circular bosses or knobs around the surface of the sphere. The designs vary with the majority being based around a series of six bosses, but the number of bosses varies from 3-160. Some carved balls are more skilfully manufactured than others, and a rare few have additional decoration. All show an appreciation for symmetry in the design.
Over 400 carved stone balls are now known, mainly from Scotland although a few have been found in northern England and Ireland. Most are isolated finds although a few have archaeological contexts, including the three found during excavations at the Late Neolithic site at Skara Brae, Orkney, which are assumed to have had a ritual significance.
Despite their numbers, very little is known about the carved stone balls and their purpose is still unknown. Few of the balls are damaged or show any signs of use and they have not been found in contexts that would suggest a specific function. They are presumed to have been non-utilitarian objects with a symbolic or social significance to communities, and are most frequently interpreted as being indicators of power or prestige. In 2013 a carved stone ball with six bosses was found under a buttress of a Late Neolithic structure during excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. The find location suggesting to the excavators that it might have been a special deposit perhaps associated with the construction of the building.
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Five carved stone balls from Scotland
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Entries in the Ashmolean's accession registers for the stone balls (AN1927.2727-2731)
There are five carved stone balls in the Ashmolean's collections:
The image above shows the records for the objects in the museum's accession register.
They are all from the collection of Sir John Evans that was presented to the Ashmolean in 1927 by his son, Sir Arthur Evans. Sir John discussed this class of object in his classic work, The Ancient Stone Implements, weapons, and ornaments of Great Britain (1897). He refers to them as 'Ornamented balls principally from Scotland' and describes them as, "balls with their surface divided into a number of more or less projecting circles, with channels between them". He suggested that at least the elaborately decorated example from Towie could date to the "Bronze Period rather than to that of Stone", and drew attention to the similarity of the decoration with that on the "carved cylinders of chalk found by Canon Greenwell in a barrow on Folkton Wold, Yorkshire".
The question of the function of the carved stone balls was as puzzling to Sir John as it is today. He suggested that they were "intended for use in the chase or war, when attached to a thong, which the recesses between the circles seem well adapted to receive”. However, his suggestion did not take into account the lack of damage on the balls, which would be expected if they had been used in this manner.
Two carved stone balls are on display in the 'Reading and Writing' gallery on the lower ground floor.
Ball from Kincardineshire (AN1927.2727)
Ball from Marnock (AN1927.2728)
Ball from Auchterless (AN1927.2729)
Ball found near Aberdeen (AN1927.2730)
Ball from Fyvie (AN1927.2731)
Clarke, D.V., Cowie, T.G., and Foxon, A., (editors). Symbols of power at the time of Stonehenge (Edinburgh: National Museums of Antiquities of Scotland, 1985).
Evans, J., The ancient stone implements, weapons, and ornaments of Great Britain (Second edition, London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1897). (Available online from the Internet Archive)
Marshall, D.N., ‘Carved stone balls’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 108, (1977), 40-72. (Available online from the Archaeology Data Service)
Marshall, D.N., ‘Further notes on carved stone balls’, Proc. of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 113, (1983), 628-30. (Available online from the Archaeology Data Service)
Saville, A., 'A Neolithic carved stone ball from Scotland acquired by Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), with comments on the Scottish connections of Lubbock and his collection", The Antiquaries Journal, 95, (2015), 1-20.
Saville, A, Grant, E, Cavers, G and Braby, A., ‘A Scottish Neolithic carved stone ball with enigmatic surface details', Proc. of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 141, (2011), 19–29 (
Scottish Archaeological Research Framework, ‘Section 5.2.4.,“special” stone artefacts (eg carved stone balls and maceheads)’, in Sheridan, A. and Brophy, K. (eds), Neolithic Scotland Panel Report (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2012), 80–6. ()
For Teachers: The British Museum's website Teaching History with 100 Objects includes a "Carved stone ball from Skara Brae".
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January 2012, last updated with additional references February 2016