Carved stone balls

Carved stone balls are petrospheres dated from the late Neolithic to possibly as late as the Iron Age mainly found in Scotland, but also elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. They are usually round and rarely oval, and of fairly uniform size at around 2.75 inches or 7 cm across, with 3 to 160 protruding knobs on the surface. They range from having no ornamentation (apart from the knobs) to extensive and highly varied engraved patterns.[2] A wide range of theories have been produced to explain their use or significance, with none gaining very wide acceptance.

They are not to be confused with the much larger smooth round stone spheres of Costa Rica.

Room 51, British MuseumDSCF6620
Carved stone ball, classed as Neolithic
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and MuseumDSCF0239 11
Three Scottish examples, in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
The exceptionally elaborately decorated ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BC[1]

Age and distribution

Carved stone balls are up to 5200 years old, coming from the late Neolithic to at least the Bronze Age.[3]

Nearly all have been found in north-east Scotland, the majority in Aberdeenshire, the fertile land lying to the east of the Grampian Mountains. A similar distribution to that of Pictish symbols led to the early suggestion that carved stone balls are Pictish artefacts.[4] The core distribution also reflects that of the Recumbent stone circles. As objects they are very easy to transport and a few have been found on Iona, Skye, Harris, Uist, Lewis, Arran, Hawick, Wigtownshire and fifteen from Orkney. Outside Scotland examples have been found in Ireland at Ballymena, and in England at Durham, Cumbria, Lowick and Bridlington. The larger (90mm diameter) balls are all from Aberdeenshire, bar one from Newburgh in Fife.

By the late 1970s a total of 387 had been recorded.[4] Of these, by far the greatest concentration (169) was found in Aberdeenshire. By 1983 the number had risen to 411[5] and by 2015 over 425 balls had been recorded.[3] A collection of over 30 carved balls from Scotland, Ireland and northern England are held by the British Museum.[6]

Archaeological context

Many of the balls have not had their discovery site recorded and most are found as a result of agricultural activity. Five were found at the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae and one at the Dunadd hillfort. The distribution of the balls is similar to that of mace-heads, which were both weapons and prestige objects used in ceremonial situations.[7] The lack of context is likely to distort the interpretation. Random finds are only likely to have been picked up and entered a collection if they were aesthetically appealing. Damaged and plain balls were less likely to find a market than decorated examples so some more decorated examples might be fraudulent.

In 2013, archaeologists discovered a carved stone ball at Ness of Brodgar, a rare find of such an object in situ in "a modern archaeological context".[8]

Physical characteristics


Room 51, British MuseumDSCF6621
Another example

Many are said to be made of "greenstone", but this is a general term for all varieties of dark, greenish igneous rocks, including diorites, serpentinite, and altered basalts. Forty-three are sandstone, including Old Red Sandstone, 26 greenstone and 12 quartzite. Nine were serpentinite and these had been carved. Some were made of gabbro, a difficult material to carve. Round and oval natural shaped sandstones are sometimes found. Examples made from Hornblende gneiss and granitic gneiss were noted, both very difficult stone to work. Granitic rocks were also used and the famous Towie example may be serpentinised picrite. The highly ornamented examples were mainly made of sandstone or serpentine.[9] A significant number have not as yet been fully inspected or tested to ascertain their composition.

Experimental archaeology

Using authentic manufacturing techniques (pecking and grinding), full replicas have been made by Andrew T. Young, a researcher at the University of Exeter. It was shown that they could be made using prehistoric technology with no recourse to the use of metal tools.[10]

Size, shape and knobs

Of the 387 carved stone balls known in 1976 (now about 425), 375 are about 70 mm in diameter, but twelve are known with diameters of 90 to 114 mm. Only 7 are oval. They are therefore about the size of tennis balls or oranges.

Nearly half have 6 knobs, 3 have 3 knobs, 43 have 4 knobs, 3 have 5 knobs, 18 have 7 knobs, 9 have 8 knobs, 3 have 9 knobs, 52 have between 10 and 55 knobs and finally 14 have between 70 and 160 knobs.


Human Prehistory in the Kelvingrove carved stone ball Aberdeenshire
A Carved stone ball with low-profile knobs

The decoration used falls into three categories, those with spirals, those with concentric circles and those with patterns of straight incised lines and hatchings. More than one design is used on the same ball and the standard of artwork varies from the extremely crude to the highly expert which only an exceptionally skilled craftsman could have produced. Some balls have designs on the interspaces between the knobs which must be significant in the context of the speculated use of these artefacts. Twenty-six of the six-knobbed balls are decorated. The Orkney examples are unusual, being either all ornamented or otherwise unusual in appearance, such as the lack, bar one example, of the frequently found six-knobbed type. Metal may have been used to work some of the designs.

The Towie ball has some design similarities with the carvings on the Folkton Drums. These were found in a tumulus in England and are made of chalk with elaborate carvings, amongst which are distinct oculi or eyes.[11] Concentric carved lines on stone balls appear to be stylised oculi. This ball also has a roughly triangular arrangement of three dots in an interspace between the knobs. This appears to be identical to the arrangement of dots found on the Parkhill silver chain terminal ring, found near Aberdeen, a Pictish artefact. It is possible that the dots represent a name, as some of the Pictish symbols at least are thought to represent personal names.[12]

Spirals or plastic ornament which is similar to Grooved Ware is found on the Aberdeenshire examples, this being a type of late Neolithic pottery not known in the north-east but common in Orkney and Fife. The New Grange carvings in Ireland show strong similarities to those found on some balls. A continuous spiral is found on one and elements of chevrons, zig-zags and concentric triangles are also found, stimulating comparisons with petrosomatoglyph symbolism. Mostly the different knobs have different or sometimes no ornamentation. A 'golf-ball' variety of ornamentation is found on a few balls. The carving does not appear to have any practical purpose in general, however it has been suggested that one type, with very distinct knobs, was used for processing copper ores (see under 'Function'). Some of the bold triangles and criss-cross incisions seem to be more Iron Age in character than Neolithic or Bronze Age.[13]


Human Prehistory in the Kelvingrove carved stone ball Turriff
Glasgow example

Some of the balls have grooves or interspaces between the knobs into which leather could be tied so as to make a device such as a bolas. Their use as weapons was suggested by many researchers but in recent years this idea has fallen from favour.

One suggestion saw the balls as movable poises on a primitive weighing machine, following the logic of the remarkable uniformity in size shown by a good number of these carefully made objects. However, it has been shown that their weights vary so considerably that mathematically they could not be considered part of a system of weight measurement.

'Sink stones' found in Denmark and Ireland have some slight similarities, these artefacts being used in conjunction with fishing nets.[14]

The possible use of the balls as oracles has been suggested. The way in which the ball came to rest could be interpreted as a message from the gods or an answer to a question. The lack of balls found in graves may indicate that they were not considered to belong to individuals.

An alternative or supplementary use could have been as the 'right to speak' where discussions are controlled by the requirement for the speaker to hold the carved stone ball or if not, then keep his or her peace and listen to the views of others. The balls are of a size that fits comfortably in one hand.

Another possible use for the stones would be in the working of hides. Into the 20th century leatherworkers polished leather, parchment, and hides, by tying the skins to a frame using a ball at each corner of the hide then rubbing down 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. In more modern times, the balls were often made from scraps of the material being worked and the leather was cut away from the balls when the polishing was finished. This caused the balls to grow in size until the process had to be started over by replacing the oversized balls with scraps and beginning a new ball.

Balls of plain sandstone with the facets from shaping still clearly visible were found at Traprain Law in East Lothian. A significant number have already been found here and are known from other southern Scottish Iron Age sites. They may date from the fourth to third centuries BC. These balls are not ornamented and do not have knobs.[15]

Megalith construction aid

Human Prehistory in the Kelvingrove carved stone ball Alford
Another in Glasgow

A theory on the movement of 'monument stones' has been put forward as a result of an observed correlation between standing stone circles in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and a concentration of carved stone balls, and it is suggested that these petrospheres may have been used to help transport the big stones by functioning like ball bearings.

Many of the late Neolithic stone balls have diameters differing by only a millimetre. The discovery of this led to the suggestion that they might have been meant to be used together. By plotting the find sites on a map it can be demonstrated that often these petrospheres were located in the vicinity of Neolithic recumbent stone circles. Models using small wooden balls placed in a groove in parallel longitudinal pieces of wood 'sleepers' with a carrying board above have shown such megalith transport to be practical in some situations.[16]

Platonic solids

The carved stone balls have been taken as evidence of knowledge of the five Platonic solids a millennium before Plato described them. Indeed, some of them exhibit the symmetries of Platonic solids, but the extent of this and how much it depends on mathematical understanding is disputed, as configurations resembling the solids can naturally arise when placing knobs around a sphere. There does not appear to be much special attention given to the Platonic solid arrangements over less symmetrical arrangements of knobs over the balls, and some of the five solids do not appear.[17][18]

See also


  1. ^ "Carved stone ball". National Museums of Scotland. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  2. ^ Marshall, D. N. (1976/77). "Carved Stone Balls". Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 108, Pp. 4–72.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b Marshall, D.N. (1976/77). Carved Stone Balls. Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 108, P. 55.
  5. ^ Marshall, D. N. (1983). "Further notes on Carved Stone Balls". Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 113, pp. 628-646.
  6. ^ British Museum Collection
  7. ^ Marshall, D.N. (1976/77). Carved Stone Balls. Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 108, P. 62 – 63.
  8. ^ "Dig Diary — Wednesday, August 7, 2013" Archived 25 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Orkneyjar. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  9. ^ Marshall, D.N. (1976/77). Carved Stone Balls. Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 108, P. 54.
  10. ^ University of Exter, The Ground Stone Tools of Britain and Ireland: an Experimental Approach von Andrew T. Young, retrieved 30. August 2014
  11. ^ Powell, T. G. E. (1966). Prehistoric Art. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20046-7
  12. ^ Cummins, W. A. (1999). The Picts and their Symbols. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-2207-9. P. 92.
  13. ^ Marshall, D. N. (1976/77). Carved Stone Balls. Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 108, P. 62.
  14. ^ Evans, Sir John (1897). The Ancient Stone Implements, weapons and ornaments of Great Britain. Pub. Longmans, Green & Co. 2nd Edition. P. 422.
  15. ^ Rees, Thomas & Hunter, Fraser (2000). Archaeological excavation of a medieval structure and an assemblage of prehistoric artefacts from the summit of Traprain Law, East Lothian. 1996 - 7. PSAS 130, P. 413 - 440.
  16. ^ "Discovering the Secrets of Stonehenge". Science Daily. 20 November 2010. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  17. ^ Lloyd 2012.
  18. ^ Hart, George. "Neolithic Carved Stone Polyhedra".


  • Smith, John Alexander (1874–76) Notes of Small Ornamented Stone Balls found in different parts of Scotland, &c., with Remarks on their supposed Age and Use. PSAS V. 11, P.29 - 62.
  • Smith, John Alexander (1874–76) Additional notes of Small Ornamented Stone Balls found in different parts of Scotland, &c., PSAS V. 11, P.313 - 319.
  • Lloyd, David Robert (2012). "How old are the Platonic Solids?". BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics. 27 (3): 131–140. doi:10.1080/17498430.2012.670845.

External links

Bare Island projectile point

The Bare Island projectile point is a stone projectile point of prehistoric indigenous peoples of North America. It was named by Fred Kinsey in 1959 for examples recovered at the Kent-Halley site on Bare Island in Pennsylvania.

Celt (tool)

In archaeology, a celt is a long, thin, prehistoric, stone or bronze tool similar to an adze, a hoe or axe-like tool.


A cist ( or ; also kist ;

from Greek: κίστη or Germanic Kiste) is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Examples can be found across Europe and in the Middle East.

A cist may have been associated with other monuments, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow. Several cists are sometimes found close together within the same cairn or barrow. Often ornaments have been found within an excavated cist, indicating the wealth or prominence of the interred individual.

This old word is preserved in the Swedish language, where "kista" is the word for a funerary coffin.

Cumberland point

A Cumberland point is a lithic projectile point, attached to a spear and used as a hunting tool. These sturdy points were intended for use as thrusting weapons and employed by various mid-Paleo-Indians (c. 11,000 BP) in the Southeastern US in the killing of large game mammals.

Eden point

Eden Points are a form of chipped stone projectile points associated with a sub-group of the larger Plano culture. Sometimes also called Yuma points, the first Eden points were discovered in washouts in Yuma County, Colorado. They were first discovered in situ at an ancient buffalo kill site near Eden, Wyoming by Harold J. Cook in 1941. The site, named after discoverer O. M. Finley, eventually yielded 24 projectile points, including eight Eden points, eight Scottsbluff points and one complete Cody point, both other sub-groups within the Plano group. Eden points are believed to have been used between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago by paleo-indian hunters in the western plains.

Eden points are the most common paleo-indian projectile points found today. They have been discovered across the western plain states, including Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana.

Folsom point

Folsom points are a distinct form of knapped stone projectile points associated with the Folsom tradition of North America. The style of tool-making was named after the Folsom Site located in Folsom, New Mexico, where the first sample was found by George McJunkin within the bone structure of a bison in 1908. The Folsom point was identified as a unique style of projectile point in 1926.

Grattoir de côté

A Grattoir de côté (translates from French as Side Scraper) is an archaeological term for a ridged variety of steep-scrapers distinguished by a working edge on one side. They were found at various archaeological sites in Lebanon including Ain Cheikh and Jdeideh II and are suggested to date to Upper Paleolithic stages three or four (Antelian).

Grinding slab

In archaeology, a grinding slab is a ground stone artifact generally used to grind plant materials into usable size, though some slabs were used to shape other ground stone artifacts. Some grinding stones are portable; others are not and, in fact, may be part of a stone outcropping.

Grinding slabs used for plant processing typically acted as a coarse surface against which plant materials were ground using a portable hand stone, or mano ("hand" in Spanish). Variant grinding slabs are referred to as metates or querns, and have a ground-out bowl. Like all ground stone artifacts, grinding slabs are made of large-grained materials such as granite, basalt, or similar tool stones.

Lamoka projectile point

Lamoka projectile points are stone projectile points manufactured by Native Americans what is now the northeastern United States, generally in the time interval of 3500-2500 B.C. They predate the invention of the bow and arrow, and are therefore not true "arrowheads", but rather atlatl dart points. They derive their name from the specimens found at the Lamoka site in Schuyler County, New York.

Pesse canoe

The Pesse canoe is believed to be the world's oldest known boat, and certainly the oldest known canoe. Carbon dating indicates that the boat was constructed during the early mesolithic period between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. It is now in the Drents Museum in Assen, Netherlands.


In archaeology, a petrosphere (from Greek πέτρα (petra), "stone", and σφαῖρα (sphaira), "ball") is the name for any spherical man-made object of any size that is composed of stone. These mainly prehistoric artifacts may have been created or selected, but altered in some way to perform their specific function, including carving and painting.

Several classes of petrospheres exist, such as the stone spheres of Costa Rica; painted pebbles from Scotland; stone charms from Scotland; sandstone balls from such sites as Traprain Law; the Carved Stone Balls, which are mainly from Scotland, although they have also been found in Cumbria and Ireland; and carved stone shot for cannons and trebuchets.

Naturally formed stone balls, such as concretions and spherulites, have been at times misidentified as petrospheres. For example, fringe archaeologists and advocates of prehistoric extraterrestrial visitors have repeatedly argued that the stone balls, which range in diameter from 0.61 to 3.35 m, found around Cerro Piedras Bola in the Sierra de Ameca, between Ahualulco de Mercado and Ameca, in Jalisco, Mexico, are petrospheres. However, these natural stone balls are megaspherulites that have been released by erosion from a 20- to 30-million-year-old ash flow tuff, which originally enclosed them and in which they formed. The proponents of these stone balls being petrospheres base their arguments on the false claims that all of these spheres are perfectly round, they are composed of granite, and natural processes cannot produce stone balls. Similarly, cannonball concretions, i.e. those found along the Cannonball River in North Dakota and near Moeraki, South Island, New Zealand, also have been misidentified as petrospheres.

Plano point

In archeology, Plano point is flaked stone projectile points and tools created by the various Plano cultures of the North American Great Plains between 9000 BC and 6000 BC for hunting, and possibly to kill other humans.

They are bifacially worked and have been divided into numerous sub-groups based on variations in size, shape and function including Alberta points, Cody points, Frederick points, Eden points and Scottsbluff points. Plano points do not include the hollowing or 'fluting' found in Clovis and Folsom points.

Prehistoric art in Scotland

Prehistoric art in Scotland is visual art created or found within the modern borders of Scotland, before the departure of the Romans from southern and central Britain in the early fifth century CE, which is usually seen as the beginning of the early historic or Medieval era. There is no clear definition of prehistoric art among scholars and objects that may involve creativity often lack a context that would allow them to be understood.

The earliest examples of portable art from what is now Scotland are highly decorated carved stone balls from the Neolithic period, which share patterns with Irish and Scottish stone carvings. Other items from this period include elaborate carved maceheads and figurines from Links of Noltland, including the Westray Wife, which is the earliest known depiction of a human face from Scotland.

From the Bronze Age there are examples of carvings, including the first representations of objects, and cup and ring marks. Representations of an axe and a boat at the Ri Cruin Cairn in Kilmartin, and a boat pecked into Wemyss Cave, are probably the oldest two-dimensional representations of real objects that survive in Scotland. Elaborate carved stone battle-axes may be symbolic representations of power. Surviving metalwork includes gold lunula or neckplates, jet beaded necklaces and elaborate weaponry, such as leaf swords and ceremonial shields of sheet bronze.

From the Iron Age there are more extensive examples of patterned objects and gold work. Evidence of the wider La Tène culture includes the Torrs Pony-cap and Horns. The Stirling torcs demonstrate common styles found in Scotland and Ireland and continental workmanship. One of the most impressive items from this period is the boar's head fragment of the Deskford carnyx. From the first century CE, as Rome carried out a series of occupations, there are Roman artifacts like the Cramond Lioness and Roman influence on material culture can be seen in local stone carvings.


In archeology, a racloir, also known as racloirs sur talon (French for scraper on the platform), is a certain type of flint tool made by prehistoric peoples.

It is a type of side scraper distinctive of Mousterian assemblages. It is created from a flint flake and looks like a large scraper. As well as being used for scraping hides and bark, it may also have been used as a knife. Racloirs are most associated with the Neanderthal Mousterian industry. These racloirs are retouched along the ridge between the striking platform and the dorsal face. They have shaped edges and are modified by abrupt flaking from the dorsal face.

Stone row

A stone row (or stone alignment), is a linear arrangement of upright, parallel megalithic standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes, usually dating from the later Neolithic or Bronze Age. Rows may be individual or grouped, and three or more stones aligned can constitute a stone row.

Tool stone

In archaeology, a tool stone is a type of stone that is used to manufacture stone tools,

or stones used as the raw material for tools.Generally speaking, tools that require a sharp edge are made using cryptocrystalline materials that fracture in an easily controlled conchoidal manner.

Cryptocrystalline tool stones include flint and chert, which are fine-grained sedimentary materials; rhyolite and felsite, which are igneous flowstones; and obsidian, a form of natural glass created by igneous processes. These materials fracture in a predictable fashion, and are easily resharpened. For more information on this subject, see lithic reduction.

Large-grained materials, such as basalt, granite, and sandstone, may also be used as tool stones, but for a very different purpose: they are ideal for ground stone artifacts. Whereas cryptocrystalline materials are most useful for killing and processing animals, large-grained materials are usually used for processing plant matter. Their rough faces often make excellent surfaces for grinding plant seeds. With much effort, some large-grained stones may be ground down into awls, adzes, and axes.


In archeology, a uniface is a specific type of stone tool that has been flaked on one surface only. There are two general classes of uniface tools: modified flakes—and formalized tools, which display deliberate, systematic modification of the marginal edges, evidently formed for a specific purpose.

Yubetsu technique

The Yubetsu technique (湧別技法, Yūbetsu gihō) is a special technique to make microblades, proposed by Japanese scholar Yoshizaki in 1961, based on his finds in some Upper Palaeolithic sites in Hokkaido, Japan, which date from c. 13,000 bp.

The name comes from the Yūbetsu River (湧別川, Yubetsugawa), on the right bank of which the Shirataki (白滝遺跡, Shirataki Iseki) Palaeolithic sites were discovered.

To make microblades by this technique, a large biface is made into a core which looks like a tall carinated scraper. Then one lateral edge of the bifacial core is removed, producing at first a triangular spall. After, more edge removals will produce ski spalls of parallel surfaces.

This technique was also used from Mongolia to Kamchatka Peninsula during the later Pleistocene.

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