A 5,000 year-old stone balls continue to baffle archaeologists

The 3D models of the carved balls of stone, including the spiral cut Towie ball (center), are now online. Credit: National Museums Of Scotland

A number of the most puzzling man-made objects from the european late neolithic — intricately carved balls of stone, each about the size of a baseball — continue to baffle archaeologists for more than 200 years after they were first discovered.

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

Archaeologists still do not know the original purpose or the meaning of the Neolithic stone balls, which are seen as some of the most beautiful examples of Neolithic art anywhere in the world. But now, they have created virtual 3D models of the beautiful balls, mainly to share with the public. In addition, the models have revealed some new details, including once-hidden patterns in the carvings on the balls. [Photos: amazing Ruins of the Old World]

Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator at the National Museums of Scotland that the online models, explained that many functions have been proposed for the stone balls on the year.

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

One theory is that the buttons on many of the stone balls were wrapped with rope or sinew, allowing them to be thrown, such as slings or South American bolas. Other theories describe the balls as objects of religious devotion or symbols of social status.

“A lot of the ideas you have to with a pinch of salt, while there are others that could be plausible,” Anderson-Whymark told Live Science. “What is interesting is that people really have their imagination captured by them — they have a lot of secrets.”

Neolithic mystery

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

Although only a few are now to be seen in Edinburgh, a total of 60 3D-models of the Neolithic stone ballsfrom the collection of the museum are now put online, so anyone who is interested in ancient wonders, everywhere in the world, can study in detail and from every angle.

The online collection contains the most famous of these objects, the Towie ball, which was found near the village of Towie in the north east of Scotland around 1860. The ball is carved with intricate spiral patterns on three of the four lobes, and is recognized as one of the most beautiful examples of Neolithic art ever found. [Photos: the world’s Oldest rock art]

Some early archaeologists found it hard to believe that such intricate objects could have been carved using only stone tools, Anderson-Whymark said, and so they mistakenly attributed them to the Picts who lived in Scotland during the late iron age and the early Medieval period, between 1800 and 1100 years ago.

But later archaeologists were able to date the stone balls at the much earlier Neolithic period of the prehistoric era, approximately 5000 years ago, when only stone tools were used, he said.

Many of the motifs used on the carved stone balls, including the detailed circles and spirals carved into the Towie ball, were also found in carvings on the Neolithic tombs, which feature underground chambers at the end of the long stone-lined corridors, such as the Newgrange tomb in Ireland.

The similarity of the designs can show that the people in the different regions during the Neolithic period in Europe shared common ideas, which showed that some forms of interaction between communities, Anderson-Whymark said.

Old objects in 3D

The online 3D-models were created with photogrammetry, which consists of the uniting of detailed photos of the surface structures and colours of the objects with precise data about their size and shape.

The photogrammetry process has revealed new information about a number of the balls, by revealing the underlying patterns of cut and chipped markings on some of them, who otherwise would not be able to be clearly seen, he said.

He believes that the key to the understanding of the carved stone balls are located in their “normal” size, which was perfect for held in the hand, while they chipped or pecked by harder stone tools.

The creation of one of the stone balls must have been a lengthy process — a number of them show signs that their design evolved as they were working, perhaps over many years or even over generations, ” he said.

While the discussion and speculation about their purpose and meaning of the Neolithic people shall continue, the stone balls are likely to retain much of their enduring mystery, Anderson-Whymark said.

“We might be able to be a little more of that story in the future by more detailed analysis of these things,” he said, “but they are always a little enigmatic.”

Original article on Live Science.


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