Last month the mystery of ‘the ancient carved stone balls of Scotland’ made international headlines, with mentions of these strange archaeological artifacts quickly spreading online as news sites quickly posted any number of copycat stories giving them a quick mention along with a few photos.
What got lost a little though was that the story came to prominence initially as publicity for a brilliant 3D scanning project involving the stone balls conducted by National Museums Scotland, allowing anyone at home to look at sixty different examples (of 500+ in total discovered over the years) in an interactive viewer, rotating and zooming to take a closer look. I’ve embedded the viewer below for readers to have some fun themselves.
Created some 5000 years ago in the Late Neolithic, the balls feature knobs and geometric markings that continue to baffle researchers, and as such their original intended usage remains “wholly unknown”. Some have suggested they were used as weapons, being mounted as maceheads or or tied to rope and thrown like South American bolas, but it is difficult to understand why the geometric carvings would be required for that (unless for ritual usage?).
Other theories have postulated that they might have been used as weights, mnemonic devices, or even extremely early representations of platonic solids. Long-time Grailer Jeff Nisbet has his own theory that has been received well: that they might have simply functioned as portable résumés or portfolios for stonemasons, serving as examples of their skill level to potential employers.
While the balls are intimately associated with Scotland, as the vast majority have been found there, a few have also been discovered in England and Ireland (as well as a single find in Norway). They range from extremely bare and simple, through to alien-device-looking oddities with strange protrusions and geometric swirls – take a look at the examples below, then go check out all of the scanned balls individually:
National Museums Scotland holds the largest collection of carved stone balls in the world, with some 140 originals and casts of a further 60 examples from other collections. Some of our finest carved stone balls are on display in the Early People gallery, but as these artefacts are so popular we have decided to bring 60 of our carved stone balls to you as 3d models via our Sketchfab account.
These examples represent a broad cross-section of the different known forms and raw materials in our collections; from three to six knobbed stones in granite, to sandstone examples covered in numerous rounded projections. The latter infamously described by Sir John Evans in his book Ancient Stone Implements (1897) as resembling ‘enormous petrified mulberries’.
These models were made using photogrammetry, which uses around 150-200 images of each artefact to produce an exceptionally high-resolution 3D model. The resolution allows you to examine and appreciate these artefacts in unprecedented detail.
Not only do the 3D models help share these fascinating objects with the public, no matter where they are around the world, they have also allowed researchers to make new discoveries: the model of one carved stone ball revealed traces of fine concentric circles on one projecting knob that had never been recorded before, despite the artefact having been in the museum for more than 100 years and examined by dozens of scholars!