Rolling Across The Atlantic

Rolling Across The Atlantic

Sir John Evans speculated that the small ornamental balls found across Scotland and in Ireland may have originally been used “for the purposes of the chase or of war”.

Another class of objects in stone which may possibly have served for the purposes of the chase or of war, consists of balls with their surface divided into a number of more or less projecting circles, with channels between them.

They seem, so far as is known, to be confined to Scotland and Ireland.

The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain
Sir John Evans – Longmans – 1897

Sir John Evans

However, it’s uncertain whether Sir John Evans risked losing his precious ornamental balls by establishing their economic efficiency and aerodynamic accuracy as sling shot.

Ball from Towie - Aberdeenshire

The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain
Sir John Evans – Longmans – 1897

The Ashmolean Museum [custodian of Sir John Evans’ ornamental balls] suggest they originated sometime between 3200 and 1500 BC although their purpose is either “unknown” or of “ritual significance” [delete as appropriate].

Carved Stone Balls from Scotland - Ashmolean Museum

Carved stone balls from Scotland are an enigmatic class of objects.

They date to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, between 3200 and 1500 BC, and are made of various stones ranging from sandstone to granite.

All show an appreciation for symmetry in the design.

Over 425 carved stone balls are now known, mainly from Scotland although a few have been found in northern England and Ireland.

Most are isolated finds although a few have archaeological contexts, most notably the three found during excavations at the later Neolithic site at Skara Brae, Orkney, which are assumed to have had a ritual significance.

Despite their numbers, very little is known about carved stone balls and their purpose is still unknown.

Very few of the balls are damaged or show any signs of use and they have not been found in contexts that would suggest a specific function.

Carved Stone Balls from Scotland
Ashmolean Museum – University of Oxford

Wikipedia imaginatively provides a host of potential uses for these ornamental balls that range from bolas to ball bearings.

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 artifacts being used in conjunction with fishing nets.

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 leather workers 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.

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.

Three Scottish examples in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

In 1979 Keith Critchlow stated these ornamental balls “display the regular mathematical symmetries normally associated with the Platonic solids”.

Platonic solids

Scottish Stone Balls as Platonic Solids

Keith Critchlow, an internationally-renowned scholar, has studied a wide range of Neolithic artefacts.

In “Time Stands Still”, he adopts a technique of cross-cultural comparison to uncover some previously unknown characteristics of the Neolithic people.

He takes ancient temple-building manuals from Indian Vedic sources, for example, and applies them to British sites – with fascinating results.

He examines Chinese pictographs for evidence of sighting instruments and scientific tools.

Perhaps most significantly, he offers evidence that stone-carved spheres with regular mathematical symmetries, found in Scotland, pre-date Plato’s writings on geometric figures by more than a thousand years.

Time Stands Still: New Light on Megalithic Science
Keith Critchlow [Author] Rod Bull [Photographer]

Keith Barry Critchlow (born 16 March 1933) is an artist, lecturer, author, and professor of architecture in England, and a co-founder of the Temenos Academy.

He is a leading expert in sacred architecture and sacred geometry and founded Kairos, a society which investigates, studies, and promotes traditional values of art and science.

Sri Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital - Puttaparthi

Critchlow’s observation led one critic to suggest the ornamental balls are actually “mathematical art”.

Critchlow states “these Neolithic objects display the regular mathematical symmetries normally associated with the Platonic solids, yet appear to be at least a thousand years before the time of either Pythagoras or Plato.

In some of the photographs, tape bands have been placed on the stones to help the viewer to see the stones in relationship to platonic solids.

While the symmetry of some of the Platonic solids is present, these are not polyhedra and the tape misleads the viewer.

Critchlow admits to not seeing an icosahedron, but does observe that some stones have points that exhibit five-fold symmetry.

The idea that these objects represent a complete set of platonic solids is weak, yet is propagated by many viewers without careful inspection of the original objects or reading Critchlow’s text.

Perhaps this is their real use:
examples of the earliest known forms of mathematical art!

Scottish carved stone balls - Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Art and Symmetry of Scottish Carved Stone Balls
David A. Reimann
Proceedings of Bridges 2014: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture

Jeff Nisbet suggests the ornamental balls are apprentice pieces that demonstrated the mason’s ability to work stone.

He had made the poker, he said, as an “apprentice piece” — a requirement of his training as a British Railway “fitter”.

I believe that as my father’s poker verified, at its most basic level, my father’s ability to work metals, so the carved stone balls of Scotland verified a mason’s ability to work stone.

A Neolithic stonemason,on the other hand, would have needed some other type of certification, and an easily portable carved stone ball could have eminently suited that purpose.
The Carved Stone Balls of Scotland
The Carved Stone Balls of Scotland – Jeff Nisbet – June 2014

Finally, some experimental archaeologists have suggested the ornamental balls found at the Poverty Point site were used as cooking balls.

The food sources of the people at Poverty Point came from the local animals and plant life in the region.

They cooked food in hearths and pits that likely acted as earth ovens, some of which had plastered walls.

Firewood was chosen carefully, with specific trees being used, namely oak and to a lesser degree hickory and cane, which archaeologist Jon L. Gibson believed was due to the fact that oak and hickory add a specific savoury flavour to food.

Archaeologists have long debated their uses.

They have concluded the fired earth objects were used in cooking, a conclusion reached through experimental archaeology.

When placed in earth ovens, the objects were shown to hold heat and aid in cooking food.

Stone boiling was an alternate way of heating up food before pottery could withstand the heat.

Cooking balls found at the Poverty Point site

However, the ornamental balls from Poverty Point are a little different.

Firstly, the Poverty Point cooking balls are “baked shapes made of loess” because the soil doesn’t contain proper pebbles.

The vast majority of artifacts uncovered at Poverty Point are small, baked shapes made of loess, which are usually balls, bicones or ropes, all of which have been described as “Poverty Point Objects” or PPOs.

The soil of the lower Mississippian Valley located at Poverty Point does not contain proper pebbles, manufacturing of artificial stones was therefore necessary.

Secondly, Poverty Point is located in the Southern United States.

Poverty Point is a prehistoric earthworks of the Poverty Point culture, now a historic monument and World Heritage Site located in Louisiana in the Southern United States.

It is 15.5 miles (24.9 km) from the current Mississippi River, and situated on the edge of Maçon Ridge, near the village of Epps in West Carroll Parish in northeastern Louisiana.

Poverty Point comprises several earthworks and mounds built between 1650 and 700 BCE, during the Archaic period in the Americas by a group of Native Americans of the Poverty Point culture.

The culture extended 100 miles (160 km) across the Mississippi Delta.

The original purposes of Poverty Point have not been determined by archaeologists, although they have proposed various possibilities including that it was: a settlement, a trading center, and/or a ceremonial religious complex.

The 910-acre (1.42 sq mi; 3.68 km2) site, which has been described as “the largest and most complex Late Archaic earthwork occupation and ceremonial site yet found in North America” is a registered National Monument.

Poverty Point

Six curving earthworks
The main part of the monument is the six concentric curving earthworks located in the center of the site.

Each is separated from one another by a flat corridor of earth.

Dividing the ridges into three sections (formerly five) are two ramps that slope inwardly, leading to Bayou Maçon.

Each of the ridge earthworks is about three feet high.

Archaeologists believe they were once five feet high, but have been worn down through agricultural ploughing over the last few centuries.

The approximate diameter of the outside ridge is three-quarters of a mile, while the innermost ridge’s diameter is about three-eighths of a mile.

Inexplicably, the ancient cultures of Poverty Point and the Orkney Islands produced remarkably similar ornamental balls, mounds and curving earthworks although these two locations are separated by around 6,800 kilometres and the Atlantic Ocean.

Prehistoric Orkney

Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland.

It consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE.

Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.”

Maeshowe (or Maes Howe; Norse: Orkhaugr) is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave situated on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland.

It was probably built around 2800 BCE.

Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar (or Brogar, or Ring o’ Brodgar) is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland.

Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites.

It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.

Orkney Ornamental Balls

However the best of all, and here Nick got very passionate, was a carved and polished stone ball. It has 6 knobs asymmetrically placed around the sphere.

The Ness of Brodgar – a Millennium of Prehistory in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Australian Medievalists – Studying the Middle Ages Down Under

Strange carved stone balls were found in Skara Brae.

Perhaps Peter Martyr was nearer the truth than many care to acknowledge when he wrote about a “New Globe” in 1511.

Peter Martyr used the term Orbe Novo (literally, “New Globe”, but often translated as “New World”) in the title of his history of the discovery of the Americas as a whole, which began to appear in 1511 (cosmologically, “orbus” as used here refers to the whole hemisphere, while “mundus” refers to the land within it).

World Map by Diego Ribero - 1529

World Map by Diego Ribero – 1529 – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City


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3 Responses to Rolling Across The Atlantic

  1. The carving of granite to produce “ball” of intricate design requires iron tools. Do archaeologists actually think these problems through?

  2. Jim Coyle says:

    MY first impressions of the carved balls is that they represent the initial stages of cellular division, but their age precludes this from being fact.

  3. Jeff Nisbet says:

    Many thanks for the mention of my theory, and the link to it. Here is another link …

Comments are closed.