Prehistoric Petrospheres: The Carved Stone Balls of Scotland 5000-2500 BC

Five carved stone balls from Scotland
Five carved stone balls from Scotland

Intro

The Carved stone balls are rare artifacts found in Scotland. Smaller in size, cupped nicely in hand, usually with six knobs, decorated with spiral and curved motifs, these balls were made in the Neolithic.

There are many suggestions that they are used as weapons, weight, projectiles, artistic purposes, or power symbols but the function of these balls is still unknown.

Prehistoric Petrospheres -Tankerness House Museum
Prehistoric Petrospheres -Tankerness House Museum

Who built these balls? What is their purpose? Where do they come from?

In this article, we’ll explore the history of carved stone balls. Keep scrolling and reading to learn about these mysterious stone balls in detail and find the answers to your questions.

Prehistoric Petrospheres

The Prehistoric Petrospheres of Scotland, most commonly known as the Carved Stone Balls, are a mysterious and unique class of objects made of different fine stones, such as sandstone and granite. These rare ancient artifacts were shaped 5000 to 5200 years ago in the late Neolithic period or as late as the Iron Age. Although some seem to date mainly to the Late Neolithic period (c. 3000 – 2500 BC), according to the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford and the National Museums of Scotland.

By 2015, a total of 425 carved stone balls have been found mainly in northeast Scotland, mostly in Skye, Iona, Harris, Lewis, Uist, Arran, Wigtownshire, Hawick, and Orkney. In England at Durham, Cumbria, Lowick, and Bridlington. And in Ireland at Ballymena.

Map of UK
Map of UK

These petrospheres are oval and fairly uniform in size, roughly 73 mm in diameter, and weigh approximately 500g. The balls are about the size of a tennis ball that can nicely fit in the cupped hand. They usually have three to 160 knobs and projections on the surface. The Stone Balls appear to have a very symmetric design.

Some have no ornamentations except for the protruding knobs, while others have extremely elaborate carved engraved patterns, such as the case of the Towie Ball of Aberdeenshire.

The Towie Ball - Aberdeenshire, Scotland
The Towie Ball – Aberdeenshire, Scotland. This beautiful Neolithic carved stone ball dates back over 5000 years. Made of a black, fine-grained stone, it has an average diameter of 73mm and weighs just over 500g. It has four discs or knobs, of which three are intricately carved and the fourth is blank.

Given the age and distribution of these objects, and the locations of their discovery, including Skara Brae a stone-built settlement in Orkney which was supposed to have ritual importance, the stones are believed to be Pictish artifacts.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb
The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb

The symbology carved in the stones closely resembles that of the Picts, a group of people that lived in northern and eastern Scotland during the Iron Age until the year 900 AD when the Pictish Kindom merged with the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riata.

Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms
Approximate location of Pictish kingdoms
Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900
Map showing the approximate areas of the kingdom of Fortriu and neighbours c. 800, and the kingdom of Alba c. 900

How Were Carved Stone Balls Made?

It requires considerable skill and patience to make carved stone balls.

Over 5000 years ago, no metal tools were available, so each of the knobs on the ball needed to be ground using sand, stone tools, water, and much effort. The stones used to make these balls were selected for their texture, colour, and natural patterning. So, they were made with special care, skill, and time.

A simple visualization of the process can be seen in a hands-on Neolithic Carved Stone Ball Workshop by the Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH)

Neolithic Carved Stone Ball Workshop
Neolithic Carved Stone Ball Workshop – Left: replica sandstone ball. Middle: work at the end of the Saturday. Right: work on pecking a sphere at the end of Saturday.

Once fitted in ancient hands, these balls can still give us a glimpse of their makers and show that those craftsmen were not so different from us.

What Were The Carved Stone Balls Used For?

There is very little information and weak evidence about the purpose of these Pictish artifacts. Many theories have been put forth as to their function, but it still remains a mystery today.

Neolithic Carved Stone Ball
Neolithic Carved Stone Ball

Some of the most common theories about the purpose of these Prehistoric Petrospheres are given in the following paragraphs.

Symbol of Power

One of the theories put forth is that the Carved Stone Balls of Scotland were used by community leaders as a symbol of power, authority, and prestige. The fashioning of these stone balls took great time and patience; thus, the owner could not risk the damage or loss of these balls in war and chase.

Ritualistic Purposes

It is also believed that these balls were used as an oracle or divination mechanism in gatherings and ceremonies. By rolling them on the ground and predicting the future from their positions and the way they moved. Because they are different shapes and sizes and have different carvings on them, they would be able to predict different and complex signs.

Weapons of War

Another theory posits that the petrospheres could have been used as weapons by throwing them or swinging them from a chord to make bolas.

A hunter using bolas while mounted on a horse.
A hunter using bolas while mounted on a horse.
Weights

A very interesting theory assumes that these Pictish artifacts were used as weighting scales, most likely used to measure food intake. Moreover, Kenyan farmers state that their workers are doubtful of the meals provided to them, so they prefer to measure it to make sure they get their fair share. It is also probable that people of the Neolithic felt the same way.

Sink Stones

Another interesting theory derived from the one above is that the Pictish artifacts were used as weights in conjunction with fishing nets. However, this theory fails to mention why these precious objects would be spent for this mundane task as these fashioning ornate objects took heavy time and care.

Treating Animal Skin

It is possible that the Carved Stone Balls were used in the treatment of hides by tying the skins to a frame using a ball at each corner of the hide and then rubbing down the material being worked with stones. The corners of the hides were wrapped around the balls which allowed the bindings to hold fast without slipping off.

Lever

Another theory states that these Prehistoric Petrospheres might have been used as a lever to remove big stones found in Aberdeenshire’s stone circles.

This theory has merit, but it does not justify why these balls were so carved because smooth balls would have been more suitable. Carving the stone balls weakens their structure and makes them less appropriate for this task. Also, damaged stone balls should have been found.

Games

It is possible that the Neolithic Carved Stone Balls might have been used in throwing games similar to Pétanque or Bocce. However, this theory does not explain why most of the stone balls that have been found are not more chipped.

Platonic Solids

The most interesting and controversial theory of what the Pictish Petrospheres were is that they show knowledge of the main Platonic Solids a millennium earlier before Plato described them.

Neolithic Carved Petrospheres displaying resemblance to Platonic Solids
Neolithic Carved Petrospheres display a resemblance to Platonic Solids

However, this theory is highly disputed in Academia based on the fact that symmetry does not appear in all objects and they are not exactly polyhedra.

The mystery of the Carved Stone Balls of Scotland still remains today.

2 thoughts on “Prehistoric Petrospheres: The Carved Stone Balls of Scotland 5,000-2,500 BC

  1. Such a fascinating story. It’s cool to see that there were even early conceptions of different items that we use commonly in today’s time. Balls I don’t think were something that were easily conceived back then and seeing it here really shows how much expertise they had in sculpting and the designs on it reiterate that fact.

  2. Marvelous! I imagine these carved stone balls were the Iron Age equivalent of collectible art, even if they may have ben used for other purposes – they were certainly sturdy enough for that. They only show a glimpse of the mysterious ancient world that used to exist in that place and at that time.

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