Figure 1. Geometric stone spheres. (Photo Credit: Martin Morrison, taken at Hunterian Museum, Glasgow)

Geometric Stone Spheres of Scotland: Part 1 – More Than A Projectile - What Possible Purpose 5,000-years Ago?

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“Only in the period when Megalithic Man was setting out the sophisticated stone rings has a sufficiently high standard of mathematical knowledge and skill ever been reached before the fifteenth century AD. Even today there are few archaeologists capable of appreciating the underlying geometry. ” - Prof. Alexander Thom

The Mysterious Ancient Spheres

Four hundred and twenty geometric stone spheres have been found in the vicinity of Neolithic stone circles in Northern Scotland, with 169 coming from Aberdeenshire alone. Outside Scotland, examples have been found in Ireland at Ballymena, and in England at Durham, Cumbria, Lowick and Bridlington. One was recently spotted by the author over 6,000 miles away that came from an important megalithic pyramid site in South America.

Figure 2. Geometric stone sphere found in Cumbria, England

Figure 2. Geometric stone sphere found in Cumbria, England

Most of the Scottish spheres are around 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter, with some examples 3.6 inches (9 cm diameter) and date from 3200 BC to 1500 BC. Some show beautiful craftsmanship and symmetry, others show artistic mastery, while some look rough, badly made, or unfinished. However, some of the better-preserved examples have diameters within one millimeter of each another. Most were all discovered within the vicinity of Neolithic monuments known as recumbent stone circles. The type of rock varies from easily carved sandstone and serpentine, to difficult, hard granite and quartzite. One of the most striking aspects of the spheres is the intricate geometry that appears to show the five Platonic Solids, a long time before Plato was born.

Figure 3. From left: Cube, Tetrahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron, Octahedron

Figure 3. From left: Cube, Tetrahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron, Octahedron

Postulations of Purpose

They fit nicely into one’s hand and this convenient size saw them described as hunting projectiles, fishing weights, and in 1876, J. Alexander Smith said they could have been attachments to wooden handles to make axe-like weapons. In her exhaustive study of the balls, (in 1976-77 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland ), Dorothy N. Marshall replied, “when one appreciates the skill and time which has been used in the fashioning of these balls, it does not seem possible that the owner would have risked their loss or damage in war or chase.”   As no evidence of damage has been found on them, she might be right. Marshall also relates the theory that the balls may have been used in competitive throwing games, but argues “ if this had been the case, surely more balls would have been chipped .”

Figure 4. Stone sphere distribution

Figure 4. Stone sphere distribution

Several further theories have surfaced since then. In 1914, Ludovic Mann suggested they were used as weights as part of some kind of scales, due to their exact size and geometry. One hypothesis says they were used to roll the megaliths across vast distances. Another theory is that the balls were used as oracles by rolling them on the ground and interpreting the future from both the way they rolled and their positions at rest. Author Laird Scranton noticed some artists rolling similar balls around in a small sand-bowl. He concluded: “... it looks like an artistic hobby (carving the stone balls) likely produced sand-art toys ”.

Figure 5. Stone balls used by artists (Photo credit: Laird Scranton)

Figure 5. Stone balls used by artists (Photo credit: Laird Scranton)

Recent research has speculated they are representations of pollen, or even atoms. How they would have been able to see microscopic particles like this was not confirmed. They have been described as ceremonial ‘talking balls’, which one would hold whilst speaking in a group.

An Ancient Portfolio?

The best explanation I have heard comes from researcher Jeff Nisbet, who believes they were used by budding megalithic architects as a symbol of their skill of working stone. I think Jeff is on to something here, as they are all following a certain design spec, that stretches all over Scotland (and northern England). Your carved stone sphere represented your current skill-set. Much like a CV or Resume of today, however, the lack of them found in graves may indicate that they were not considered to belong to individuals, so may have been passed on to the new graduates.

The Scottish stone spheres were labelled as “projectiles” for almost a century. Originally, they were thought to be Iron-Age Pictish creations, as many of them were found in their territory. However, further discoveries pushed the origins back to at least 2500 BC due to their proximity to stone circles. As Jeff suggested, these strange spheres may have been part of the megalith-builders tool kit. It is the fine carving of precision spirals that resemble many found in megalithic sites such as Newgrange. The famous Towie Stone is the most accomplished sphere, with beautiful workmanship and artistic flair (see pic below).

Comments

Another suggestion was since they were used long before writing they could be an individual's marker for communal functions, such as whose turn it was for sentry duty that night, or whose turn it was to get the best cuts of meat from the next hunt etc. And similar patterns could be etched onto wooden handles to show who owned a valuable tool, or be painted onto a domesticated animal like a brand.

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