Neolithic Britain's Mysterious Stone Balls Have Been Brought To Virtual Life

Not much is known about life in Neolithic Britain, but perhaps one of the most significant and enduring mysteries from the period are the hundreds of stone balls that are not much bigger or smaller than a tennis ball and attentively carved with fine spirals, concentric circles, and knobs. They are made of various types of stone, such as sandstone and granite. One from Orkney was coated in a black fish-based paste. All show an appreciation for symmetry.

The first such ball was found over two centuries ago. Since then, archeologists have dug up hundreds – yet, researchers still don't know who made them or why.


They do know that they date back to the Late Neolithic period (3000-2500 BCE) and that making them would have been a long-winded task. The details on some suggest they could have been worked on over several years and, possibly, multi-generations. 

The majority have been found in the northeast of Scotland, but others have popped up in England, Ireland, the Orkney Islands, and even Norway. The world's largest set belongs to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but now, thanks to the museum's latest project, you won't have to travel that far to get up close and personal with the collection. 

Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator at the museum, has built 3D computer models of 60 stone balls, which you can spin around and zoom in on to your heart's content. To do so, he used a technique called photogrammetry. This involves recreating the objects virtually using incredibly defined photographs. According to Live Science, the process exposed previously unnoticed details, such as patterns chipped or carved into the stone that were too subtle to spot beforehand. 

It's likely we'll never really know what function these stones served, particularly as Neolithic Brits hadn't yet learned to write and so we have no written evidence to go on, but the researchers' best guess is that they were some sort of ritual or status item. The stone balls tend to be in good condition, which suggests they were well looked after and admired. However, this hasn't stopped people from coming up with other suggestions: Were they used as weapons or as weights for traders? Could they have been used to roll chunks of stone to build impressive Stone Age monuments? 


"Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible," Anderson-Whymark told Live Science

Interestingly, the patterns and markings you can see on these stone balls are remarkably similar to others found elsewhere, such as stones at a passage tomb at Newgrange, eastern Ireland. This suggests networks of Neolithic communities were already meeting and sharing ideas and culture with one another.

Take a look at the virtual stones on the National Museum of Scotland's website here.  

For more virtual Neolithic treasures, check out a 3D model of a 5,000-year-old funeral mound.  


[H/T: Live Science]


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