5.2.4 ‘Special’ stone artefacts (e.g. carved stone balls and maceheads)

This category covers a variety of Middle to Late Neolithic objects, such as maceheads and carved stone balls, which were not workaday utilitarian artefacts and may have had a special, ceremonial, significance in Neolithic society (e.g. as symbols of power). Also included in this category is a variety of odd-shaped stone objects from Late Neolithic Orkney, mostly but not exclusively from Skara Brae, whose function and significance are uncertain; and finally the figurine found recently at the Links of Noltland is considered here, along with its comparanda.


This class of artefact is united by having a perforation, often neatly parallel-sided, indicating that it was designed to be mounted on a haft. (A handle of willow from Skara Brae has been suggested as a macehead haft. Another common feature is that many have been made from visually striking types of rock, usually glacial erratics (cf. Fenton 1988 on the choice of stone for Early Bronze Age battle-axe heads). Several types have been defined (principally by Fiona Roe, who proposed a Britain-wide typology in 1979). The principal types are ovoid, pestle-shaped and cushion maceheads , with a knobbed, slightly oval macehead from Skara Brae constituting a kind of hybrid between maceheads and carved stone balls.

A map showing the scattered distribution of maceheads in England and along the eastern coast of Scotland

Distribution of maceheads (Roe 1968)

Within the ovoid class is a sub-group of decorated maceheads, of flint or other siliceous stone, known as ‘Maesmawr-type maceheads’; and the pestle-shaped maceheads comprise some examples with straight/-ish sides (formerly known as ‘Orkney Pestles’) and others with concave sides (formerly known as ‘Thames Pestles’, this nomenclature has been dropped since it is clear that many examples found in Orkney are waisted).

Cushion-type maceheads which are often of green or greenish stone. These were first studied systematically by Gibson (1944), who pointed out that several are of virtually identical size and shape. However, they are made of various materials, including calc-silicate hornfels from Creag na Caillich (as confirmed by thin-sectioning of the example from Knock, Lewis, for instance), which suggests that they were not all made in the same location.

Macehead distribution in Scotland is uneven, with a marked concentration of all of the main types of macehead in Orkney (but none of Maesmawr type), a smaller but nevertheless important cluster in Shetland, a scatter around the northern, western and south-western coasts and islands of Scotland, and a fair representation in the rich agricultural lowlands of north-east and south-east Scotland (Roe 1967; 1968; 1979; Simpson & Ransom 1992). The knobbed example from Skara Brae is without parallel in the rest of Neolithic Britain and Ireland.

Most of these maceheads are likely to have been made using cobbles collected from glacial deposits or riverbeds. The flint/flint-like Maesmawr-type maceheads may well be an exception, and even though an unfinished example was found in the River Tay, the source of the raw material is unknown.

By analogy with battle-axe heads, where experimental replication by Malcolm Fenton (1984) has revealed how long each stage in the manufacturing process would have taken. The most time-consuming part of macehead manufacture would have been the boring of the perforation, which may well have been done using a wooden drill bit, with plenty of sand and water. The most labour-consumptive type of macehead is the Maesmawr type, where not only would the drilling of the hole have been a risky business (as siliceous stone is prone to breakage during perforation), but the decoration would have involved much painstaking grinding, particularly in the production of the lozenge-shaped ‘network’ design on one or both ends. Such maceheads were probably made by specialists; they are are scattered widely (but thinly) around Britain and Ireland, and include the famous spiral-decorated example from one of the passage tombs under the largest mound at Knowth, Co, Meath. (The fact that the spiral design on the Knowth macehead is more similar to spirals found in Scotland than those found in Ireland has led to speculation that that macehead may have been made in Britain, possibly even Scotland, even though the stone had probably not come from Scotland: Sheridan 2004) Also possibly made by a small number of specialist stoneworkers are the cushion maceheads.

The function of these objects has been debated (Roe 1966; 1968; 1977). In theory, all could have been weapons, as they would have been effective in delivering blunt force trauma. However, in addition (or alternatively), they were probably weapons of social exclusion, owned only by the elite, to judge from the care and time expended in their manufacture. Microwear analysis is unlikely to be able to demonstrate whether any had been used for both (or indeed either) purpose. That some had featured in Late Neolithic ceremonies is indicated by the high incidence of maceheads that have been deliberately broken across their middle, found on the strip of land separating the Lochs of Stenness and Harray between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Bookan. This ritual breakage finds echoes in the potlatch ceremonies of north-west America and Canada, where valuable objects were ceremonially broken, to dedicate them to otherworldly forces and to show off the donors’ wealth and power. Given that, in Late Neolithic Orkney, we seem to be dealing with a ranked society that was engaged in acts of conspicuous consumption in its monument building (Schulting et al. 2010), it seems likely that maceheads were also part of the ‘vocabulary of esteem’, and featured in competitive displays. Indeed, this might partly account for their diversity of shape as ranking markers.

Find contexts include the ‘temple complex’ at Ness of Brodgar; the settlements at Skara Brae, Barnhouse, Toft’s Ness and Rinyo; and chamber tombs, including Taversoe Tuick, Orkney and Tormore, Arran . At Tormore, the macehead will have represented secondary use of the monuments; it may well have been deposited at the same time as a Grooved Ware bowl, around 3000-2900 BC (Henshall 1972, 305).

The available dating evidence from Britain and Ireland suggests that macehead use (including the use of antler maceheads) probably began during the Middle Neolithic, at some time between 3300 BC and 2900 BC – the precise dating being subject to a plateau in the radiocarbon calibration curve – and continued into the Late Neolithic, encompassing the period when Grooved Ware use became widespread (from around 3000 BC). It should also be pointed out that pestle maceheads had a second period of use during the Early Bronze Age, as shown by one example found in a cache of objects (including a V-perforated button of albertite) deposited on the outside of Isbister chamber tomb, Orkney (Simpson & Ramson 1992, no. 7), and another, miniature, example, found in a child’s grave alongside a Food Vessel at Doune, Perthshire (McLaren 2004). While the Isbister example might represent the collection and re-use of an ancient object, the Doune miniature could have been made during the Early Bronze Age.

That ovoid and pestle maceheads (along with antler maceheads) were the earliest types to be used is suggested by the presence of one of each type in the large passage tomb mound at Knowth in the Boyne Valley, with the Maesmawr-type example in the eastern tomb and a fragment of a pestle-shaped macehead in the western tomb. Recent radiocarbon dating of cremated bone at Knowth will shed new light on the probable date of both mace -heads (Schulting et al. forthcoming). The fact that maceheads also featured in miniature form, as pendants, in several Irish passage tombs including Tara also suggests that they were in use between 3300 BC and 2900 BC. The presence of both a pestle and a cushion macehead at Barnhouse (Clarke 2005, fig. 14.2) is consistent with this date range; recent Bayesian modelling of the C14 dates (Schulting et al. 2010, 34-5) suggests a start date of 3300-3110 cal BC and an end date of c 2900 cal BC for the use of Barnhouse.

As for the dating of cushion maceheads more generally, the current dating evidence for the Ness of Brodgar offers a somewhat broad overall bracket of c 3100 BC-c 2300 BC, but this may well become narrowed as more phases of activity are dated. Cushion maceheads found with cremated bone in southern England, at Stonehenge, Wiltshire and at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (in association with bone ‘skewer’ pins) are likely to date to the early third millennium BC.

The knobbed macehead found at Skara Brae, is dated to between 3100 BC and 2600 BC. A pestle macehead, and a small fragment of a cushion macehead, were also found at that site; the former is an old find, with no provenance details, while the latter was from a late context (the uppermost midden).

The main outstanding research questions concerning the contexts and use maceheads are:

  • Can the dating – especially of the end of the Neolithic use of maceheads, and of specific sub-types – be refined?
  • Where, and on what scale, were maceheads made? More specifically, where were Maesmawr maceheads made, and where was the flint/flint-like stone obtained?
  • It seems likely that some movement of maceheads took place (as suggested, for example, by the scatter of finds along the western seaboard of Scotland). Can this be substantiated on petrological grounds, and if so, can the direction and extent of movement be traced? In particular, can movement be traced from Orkney, where many maceheads seem to have been made and used?
  • Were the Knowth maceheads imported from (or via) Scotland?
  • Were any used as weapons, and can microwear analysis confirm this?

Carved stone balls

These internationally esteemed and objects of Scottish prehistory have been the subject of much speculation. Mathematicians have claimed that they represent Platonic solids and many other disparate functions having been suggested (e.g. as throwing weapons). The fact that they are frequently described as ‘mysterious’ is unhelpful. Stuart Piggott declared ‘Their use is wholly unknown’ and thus emphasised the need for them to be studied and understood against the background of what we now know about Late Neolithic Scotland (cf. Edmonds 1992).

Over 400 examples of these balls are known, with over 90% having been found in north-east Scotland, where most are likely to have been made. The map of recovery emphasises the absolute dominance of Aberdeenshire finds (although it should be noted that, during the 19th century when much antiquarian collecting occurred, an Aberdeenshire provenance seems to have been desirable, so it may be that a few balls found elsewhere have acquired this as a provenance). The rest of the distribution shows as a smaller concentration within Orkney (where the variety of styles is the broadest), plus a thin scatter around the coast of Scotland, and into northern England and north-east Ireland. One ball has even been found in Norway, but this must have been a Viking period find, taken to Norway as a curio or amulet. Notwithstanding the obvious difference in the densest concentration of finds, the distribution maps for carved stone balls and maceheads share features in common, (the thin scatter around the Scottish coast and beyond) attesting to a network of contacts operating in Late Neolithic Scotland.

Most of these balls are around 70 mm in diameter, and some – including the famous ball from Towie, Aberdeenshire – have been decorated with spiral and/or other designs that clearly reference Irish (and Orcadian) passage tomb ‘art’. Detailed descriptions and excellent drawings can be found in Dorothy Marshall’s corpus (Marshall 1977), which lists the number of balls with four knobs, six knobs, etc.. By far the commonest type is the 6-knob variety, which would have been the simplest to lay out.

A photograph of a carved black stone ball with protruding surfaces each decorated with a different swirling decoration from Towie in Aberdeenshire

Carved ball from Towie, Aberdeenshire ©NMS

As with maceheads, the makers of carved stone balls sought out stones that are visually and/or texturally striking, likely to have come from glacial deposits and/or river beds. Experimental replication (by David Jones) has suggested that the makers would have selected cobbles that were not too different in size and shape from the desired final product. The shaping and decoration would have taken at least 50 hours, and an estimate of well over 100 hours can be suggested for the highly-skilled manufacture of the Towie ball, with its finely-pecked/incised, intricate decoration.

While the Towie ball represents the peak of the stoneworker’s skill, akin to the Knowth Maesmawr-type macehead (with which it shares the use of a spiral design), not all carved stone balls were equally skilfully made, and there are examples that show design faults, with knobs ‘squeezed in’ to the overall pattern. A few appear to be unfinished.

The most plausible explanation of the function of these balls is that they were symbols of power rather like the orb in the historical symbols of regal power, showing off the status of their owner; some, like the Towie ball, bear symbolically-significant symbols that explicitly evoke decoration also deployed in elaborate passage tombs. Like maceheads, they may well have been ‘fancy’ weapons; and indeed they could have been mounted as maceheads, with lashing passing through the spaces between the knobs. Alternatively, like the ethnohistoric bolas of South America, which they resemble, they could have been throwing weapons, or used at close range, on a short leash. Again, like maceheads, they would have inflicted blunt force trauma if applied to a skull (or any other part of a body). Carved stone balls make sense when seen as one of a suite of fancy weapons used as symbols of power, operating in a society where competitive elite display was an important aspect of the ‘vocabulary of esteem’. The fact that the epicentre of their manufacture lay outside Orkney, in Aberdeenshire, reminds us that Orkney was not the sole centre for innovation during the Late Neolithic: to some extent we are dealing with regional centres of ‘fashion’ in the design of symbols of power. Furthermore, their overall distribution attests to the widespread nature of contacts at this time. They may also serve as a reminder of how significant Aberdeenshire may have been in the course of developments nationally at this period, and how relatively little is known of this significance.

Their dating to the centuries around 3000 BC (i.e. the Middle to Late Neolithic) – at least for their manufacture – is suggested by the fact that beads resembling miniature 6-knobbed stone balls have been found at Knowth, in the tomb under the main mound (Sheridan, in press); like the miniature macehead pendants, these show that personal jewellery was reinforcing the international ‘symbols of power message’ among the elite. Again, the recent dating of deposits inside the main mound will shed light on the specific date (Schulting et al. forthcoming). (Note also that several Irish passage tombs contain smooth versions of carved stone balls; these may constitute an Irish variant of the ‘carved stone ball’ idea, and indeed may have been the source of inspiration for using the ball shape).

Another pointer towards the c 3000 BC date for manufacture is the fact that the spiral and other designs on some balls so closely evoke the complex, ‘plastic style’ passage tomb ‘art’ of the Boyne Valley, which will have been created during the last few centuries of the fourth millennium BC. The presence of carved stone balls at Skara Brae suggests a date bracket for its use between 3100 and 2600 BC.

The key outstanding research questions relating to carved stone balls can be suggested as follows:

  • • What was their overall currency? When exactly did they begin to be used, and did they continue to be used throughout the Late Neolithic?
  • • Does the dating of Irish smooth stone balls permit the suggestion that they could have provided the design inspiration for the Scottish carved stone balls?
  • • Are there any signs of blunt force trauma on human skulls of the period that could have been caused by a blow from a carved stone ball (as opposed to a macehead or club)?
  • • Might microwear examination reveal any use-wear traces?

Variously-shaped carved stone artefacts

A photograph showing a smooth stone ball with a faint linear decoration, a carved stone ball with protruding pyramids and a cylindrical carved stone with groves along the body and four points at each end

Carved stone objects, Skara Brae ©NMS

Maceheads and carved stone balls form part of a broader range of carved stone objects that belong to the late fourth and/or early third millennia BC. The other, variously-shaped objects have all been found in Grooved Ware-associated contexts in Orkney (or as stray finds there), and these include the famous objects from Skara Brae: the hand grenade-shaped item and the three-pointed object. Similar objects have been found in the Maes Howe-type passage tomb at Quoyness and the Ness of Brodgar ‘temple complex’ has produced a further type of object that falls within the same conceptual grouping, in the form of roughly rectangular, solid, polished blocks of visually-attractive stone .

A photograph showing a three pointed carved stone object decorated in the centre with linear incisions

Three pointed object, Skara Brae ©NMS

In every case these objects can be considered as fancy weapons, which could have been carried in a fist (rather like the spiked ‘meanies’ of some native American tribes) or else, in some cases (e.g. the Ness of Brodgar blocks), mounted as a mace. Like the carved stone balls and maceheads, these could all have delivered a painful, indeed lethal, blow. These seem to have been the products of a society where authority could be enforced through violent means, if necessary, and where the elite competed with each other in having novel shapes of weapons. Again, an analogy can be drawn with the ethnohistoric record of North America, where weaponry (including tomahawks and maces) shows a wide variety in design.

Among the odd-shaped stone objects from Skara Brae and elsewhere are some which could, theoretically, have had a more prosaic function. These include the knobbed spike from Skara Brae, with a parallel from Rinyo while this could indeed have been one of the fancy weapons, it could also have been used as a fish gaff, a seal club or to despatch animals, since a blow to the skull would fell a cow or ox instantly. A cattle skull from Skara Brae has a roughly circular hole between the eyes that could, theoretically, have been caused by a blow from this kind of object. Similarly, the relatively thin, hatchet/cleaver-like object could have been just that. The star-shaped object that is covered under section 5.2.7 could equally be regarded in this category – i.e. as a utilitarian object which, because of its unusual shape, has tended to be lumped in with the more obvious fancy weapons.

Research questions relating to these objects are:

  • • What is the overall range of forms of ‘fancy weapons’? No overall corpus exists.
    • How might one tell whether an object had been a utilitarian item as opposed to a symbol of power? (There may be a false dichotomy here, since innovation in design need not be restricted to prestige items). Enhanced micro-wear study?
    • What is the overall chronological currency of use of these objects?
    • Are any comparanda known from outside Orkney?
    • Do any human skulls show wounds that could have been caused by these objects? And might use-wear analysis shed any new light on their use?

The figurine from the Links of Noltland

A photograph of a carved stone object shaped like a figure decorated with linear incisions

Links of Noltland figurine ©Historic Scotland

This small anthropomorphic figurine, only 41 x 31 x 12 mm, was found in 2009 at the Late Neolithic settlement at the Links of Noltland on Westray (Goring 2011) and has since become internationally known as the ‘Orkney Venus’ (http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/orkney-venus.pdf), or the ‘Westray Wifie’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westray_Wife), replicated in popular biscuit form by local bakers WFM Brown, and also in Warholesque artwork by a local artist.

Probably made from a beach cobble, it has been shaped so as to depict a figure – either human or divine – with a round head, angular eyebrows and rectangular nose. The body appears to be wearing a cloak; two circular hollows at the shoulder have been suggested to be breasts, although an alternative interpretation as garment fasteners (e.g. the heads of large pins) is possible. To judge from the recently-obtained radiocarbon dates from the Links of Noltland (Moore & Wilson 2011, 38-9), the figure may well date c 2900-2600 BC.

This has been hailed as the earliest representation of the human form in Scotland, and it is of particular significance because the ‘eyebrow motif’ is also found pecked into a structural stone at the Holm of Papa Westray South chamber tomb nearby (Davidson & Henshall 1989, plate 24), and on the chalk ‘drums’ from Folkton, Yorkshire (Longworth 1995), suggesting that it had a particular significance in Late Neolithic cosmology. This is what has given rise to the idea that the figure may depict a deity, perhaps an ancestor. How the object was used, remains a mystery. .

It is not, however, the only such object to have been found in Late Neolithic Orkney; a second figurine, in baked clay, was found at the Links of Noltland in 2010, and one or two other possible examples are known. The discovery, in 2011, of a segmented, baked clay anthropomorphic phallus at Ness of Brodgar hints at variability in Late Neolithic representational objects.

The key research question to be answered is:

•What is the significance of this figurine? Was it a sacred object, used in rituals? Or might it have had a more prosaic function – even perhaps as a toy?

•The contextual background of both finds at the Links of Noltland needs to be probed to investigate whether these can shed light on its function

Comments 3

  1. Discussion on the use of Carved Stone BallsThree years on from this panel report and what these objects were used for is still a mystery. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was sent a paper in June 2014 which sets out a possible use for carved stone balls. This is a great example of how ScARF is fueling research and debate amongst a variety of groups and can be downloaded from https://scarf.scot/national/scarf-neolithic-panel-report/neolithic-downloads/. It is the paper by Jeff Nisbet.  

  2. National Museums Scotland – Carved Stone Balls on Sketchfab

    New 3D models of some of the NMS carved stone balls are now available to view at


    Carved stone balls are one of Scotland’s most enigmatic prehistoric artefacts. Created some 5000 years ago in the Late Neolithic, their distinctive forms were carefully pecked and ground to shape by communities across north east of Scotland. A few, such as Towie Ball, were elaborately decorated and represent some of the finest examples of Neolithic art in Europe. Yet we still don’t know how carved stone balls were used. It has long been postulated that they were weapons – mounted as maceheads or bound with twine and thrown like South American bolas. But other authors have suggested they were used as weights, measures, mnemonic devices or symbols of power; some mathematicians have even viewed them as representations of platonic solids. Around 525 carved stone balls are known and vast majority are from Scotland. National Museums Scotland holds the largest collection of carved stone balls in the world. Here are a few of them! Models produced by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark

  3. carved stone balls
    I am fascinated by many things and do believe that the obvious can be ignored due to lateral thinking.
    I wonder if these are business cards.
    Aberdeen/Orkney had a name for stone masonary (who could round a stone without modern tools ?) and they sent the apprentices out to earn money/barter etc.

    Today every salesman(person- how tiring) has a sample of there work.
    This is what I can do, can I have a feed ?

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