LiveScience (via ScienceAlert) is puzzling over two polished stone spheres found in a Neolithic site on the isle of Sanday in the Orkneys. The stones resemble similar finds across Scandinavia and Britain, but no one is actually sure what they were for. The best guess now is that polished stone spheres like these were some popular form of art 5,500 years ago:
Early researchers suggested that the balls were used as weapons, and so they were sometimes called “mace heads” as a result. Another idea is that rope could have been wound around the lobes carved into some of the balls to throw them.
But most archaeologists now think the stone balls were made mainly for artistic purposes, perhaps to signify a person’s status in their community or to commemorate an important phase of their lives, said archaeologist Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire in England, who led the excavations of the tomb on Sanday.
“They would have taken quite a long time to make, because it is quite time-consuming to polish a stone … You’ve got to sit there with some sand and some water and a stone, and basically put the work in.”
This is one of the few times that stone balls have been found in their true archaeological context, Cummings said, which could shed light on the purpose of the mysterious objects.
Each of the balls were found in the corners of two different compartments used to inter human remains in the burial chamber of the tomb, while other objects – especially pieces of pottery – were found along the compartment walls.
“Probably what was happening was that people were putting little slabs down and putting pots on top of these slabs,” Cummings said. “They really seemed to be interested in the walls and the corners.”
Inside the tomb, archeologists also found a deposit of cremated human bones near the entrances of two of the five compartments in the burial chamber, as well as several “scale knives,” which were made by breaking beach pebbles into flakes that had a sharp edge.