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The Skara Brae artefacts: Who made them, and why?

Skara Brae, now considered Europe’s finest and most well-preserved ruins of a Neolithic settlement, had remained hidden for four millennia beneath the earth of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, before it was re-discovered after being partially revealed by a winter storm in 1850. During the sites’s excavation, thousands of manmade objects were uncovered, but none more mysterious than a small collection of carved stone balls whose function has evaded explanations.

One prominent theory has it that the objects were fancy weapons used for ceremonial purposes. However Jeff Nisbet, longtime Grail reader who has researched and written about a number of historical mysteries (e.g. the Arthur’s Seat Coffin Dolls), has his own theory (which he admits is speculative, but hopes it might “spark new paths of inquiry that may well bear fruit”).

Jeff’s theory is that these artifacts were likely to actually have been tools, used in the manufacture of objects made of bone. He cites a 1930 paper for the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by the Director of the National Museum of Antiquities, J. Graham Callender, which states that…

No more surprising discovery was made at Skara Brae than the four thousand odd beads fashioned from the long bones of animals and teeth of sheep. Prehistoric beads of bone have been found in brochs, but, all told, their number is insignificant. Indeed it is amazing that so many should be found at Skara Brae and so few elsewhere.

Given the sheer number of bone beads, suggesting that the manufacture of these objects was a principal contributor to the Skara Brae economy, Jeff’s opinion is that the curious stone objects also discovered at Skara Brae “might not have been fancy weapons at all, but were more likely tools used by the settlement’s bone carvers during the most recent period of the settlement’s existence”. Or perhaps more accurately, they were multi-tools.

In a paper recently uploaded to Academia (“The Skara Brae Artefacts: Who made them, and why?“), Jeff runs through a number of artifacts and how they might have been used – I’ve posted just one below, check out the linked paper for the full run-down.

Skara Brae ‘hand grenade’ artifact

Artifact 1: That it has been described as looking like a hand grenade certainly predisposes one to begin thinking of this object as a possible weapon. Considering the sheer number of beads and other implements discovered at the site, however, I’m convinced it’s more likely to have been a tool fashioned to comfortably and securely ‘bundle’ as many as 16 lengths of bone in a single hand, thereby facilitating an economy of labor that permitted numerous objects to be produced simultaneously, and further enabling precise standardization of length, decoration, and other desired qualities of the end-product. In today’s parlance we could call it a bone carver’s ‘life hack’, with a design more reminiscent of the recently fashionable ‘steampunk’ style than anything we should expect to find in the Neolithic.

Let’s first imagine how the tool could have been used in the production of beads, with the bead maker positioning roughly similar lengths of bone into each of the semicircular parallel grooves, perhaps holding them securely in place with cords, thereby allowing them to be accurately notched, as shown in the grouping at lower-right of George Petrie’s drawing (shown below), to make as many as several dozen precisely sized bone beads. These beads could then be fine-tuned for the job at hand or added to the stock- pile reserved for future use. Also note that Petrie’s group may have been pre-notched to provide standards by which to measure future groupings.

Besides speeding the production of bone beads in quantity, however, it could also be used to refine individual implements such as the numerous pointed Skara Brae objects shown in Petrie’s drawing. The artifact has been conveniently sized for the human hand, allowing it to be held with confidence, while the bone object can be optimally positioned and secured with the thumb while the other hand is busy with further refinements.

Let’s now consider why the parallel grooves of this particular artifact are slightly curved from end to end. As it happens, most mammal bones are thicker at the joints, meaning that the entire lengths of the bones are also curved between those joints. It would seem, therefore, that this artifact may have been fashioned with precisely that attribute in mind.

Skara Brae artefacts, drawn by George Petrie
A selection of Skara Brae bone implements shown in ‘Notice of Ruins of Ancient Dwellings at Skara, Bay of Skaill, in the Parish of Sandwick, Orkney, Recently Excavated,’ George Petrie’s April 1867 paper in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Especially note the grouping in the lower-right corner, theorized by Petrie as showing the steps used in making bone beads. Also note that two of the stone artifacts under present discussion have been much reduced in size relative to the implements.

While confessing that his ‘multi-tool’ theory is at this moment speculative, Jeff suggests that it could be put to the test by comparing the various structural features of the mysterious stone balls to the physical features of the bone artifacts excavated from Skara Brae to look for a match – and also by asking the opinion of present day bone-working artisans.

Paper:The Skara Brae Artefacts: Who made them, and why?“, by Jeff Nisbet.