Where were they found?
This is one of a number of unusually-shaped carved stone objects found at Skara Brae, a late Neolithic settlement on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Islands. The settlement had been buried in sand until it was uncovered after a huge storm in 1850. It was investigated then and excavated in the 1920s and again in the early 1970s. This ball was found in House 3, close to a box where limpets had been stored.
Skara Brae was inhabited between around 3200 BC and 2500 BC. For part of this time it consisted of seven single-roomed houses, linked by passageways. Each house was large enough for a family to live in comfortably, and its door could be barred from the inside, for privacy and safety. At the centre of each house was a hearth, with a stone dresser behind it for displaying prized possessions. Stone-framed box beds stood along the side walls. There were even small cells, used as indoor toilets. The people who lived at Skara Brae were prosperous farmers who kept sheep and pigs, grew barley, managed deer and harvested the rich resources of the sea. They buried their dead in a large chamber tomb and participated in the ceremonies on the islands.
There was very little wood in Orkney and most of the objects found at Skara Brae are made of stone or bone, including bowls made from whale vertebrae and shovels made from the shoulder bones of oxen. Other everyday objects found at this settlement include bone dice and pins, beads and pendants of walrus ivory, and stone paint pots. See A bigger picture for examples of these objects.
What were the balls for?
Many theories have been put forward to explain the carved stone balls that have been found in Orkney and elsewhere in Scotland, especially Aberdeenshire. They are best understood as one of a range of special carved stone objects that were the precious belongings of community leaders; others include maceheads. These objects could easily have been used as weapons, with balls being thrown or swung from a cord. However, first and foremost they were symbols of power, prestige and authority in a society where not everybody was equal. Some maceheads were deliberately smashed during religious ceremonies and it is likely that balls also featured in various rituals.
Making a carved stone ball required skill and patience. There were no metal tools at this time, so each of the 67 knobs on this ball had to be ground using stone tools, sand, water and much effort. The stones selected for use as balls and other symbols of power vary in their geology and hardness, but they were often selected for their beautiful colour, texture or natural patterning. There is a link with Neolithic Ireland: beads made as miniature versions of Scottish carved stone balls have been found in the huge passage tomb at Knowth in the Boyne Valley, and some of the Scottish balls are decorated in the style of the Irish passage tombs. This tells us that some Neolithic people travelled far and wide.
Skara Brae and other Orkney sites
Carved stone balls and maceheads
Article about the balls and other stone objects from the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework.
Three carved stone balls
Information about other stone balls at the British Museum with a downloadable photo.
Stone balls at the Ashmolean Museum