Enigmatic Stone Balls from 5,000 Years Ago Baffles Archaeologists

June 20, 2018

Some of the most enigmatic human-made objects from Europe’s late Stone Age — intricately carved balls of stone, each about the size of a baseball — continue to baffle archaeologists more than 200 years after they were first discovered.

More than 500 of the enigmatic objects have now been found, most of them in northeast Scotland, but also in the Orkney Islands, England, Ireland and one in Norway.

Archaeologists still don’t know the original purpose or meaning of the Neolithic stone balls, which are recognized as some of the finest examples of Neolithic art found anywhere in the world. But now, they’ve created virtual 3D models of the gorgeous balls, primarily to share with the public. In addition, the models have revealed some new details, including once-hidden patterns in the carvings on the balls. [See More Photos of the Intricately Carved Stone Balls]

Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator at National Museums Scotland who created the online models, explained that many functions have been proposed for the stone balls over the years.

Such proposals have included the possibility that they were made as the stone heads for crushing weapons, or standardized weights for Neolithic traders, or rollers for the transport of the giant stones used in megalithic monuments.

One theory is that the knobs on many of the carved stone balls were wound with twine or sinew, which allowed them to be thrown like slings or South American bolas. Other theories describe the balls as objects of religious devotion or symbols of social status.

“Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible,” Anderson-Whymark told Live Science. “What’s interesting is that people really get their imaginations captured by them — they still hold a lot of secrets.”

Carved stone ball, Towie, Aberdeenshire by National Museums Scotland on Sketchfab

Neolithic mystery

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the world’s largest collection of carved stone balls, including around 140 originals from Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites in Scotland and the Orkney Islands, and 60 casts of similar objects from other places.

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