5.4.3.2.3 Maceheads

A review of published sources (Gibson 1944; Roe 1968; 1979), the Highland HER, Canmore and other sources of information, has produced a list of 14 definite and probable examples of stone maceheads found in Highland Region (Table 5.3). This is fewer maceheads than have been found in Orkney and Shetland to the north, and in Aberdeenshire and adjacent areas to the east and south. These distinctive and often visually stunning artefacts, which would have been attached to a shaft when in use, are likely to have been made and used (or, at least, first used) between c. 3200/3100 BC and c. 2900/2800 BC and, like carved stone balls, they may well have been weapons, but were also, and above all, weapons of social exclusion – precious symbols of power, owned only by certain individuals in a non-egalitarian society. They attest to the extensive networks of contacts that linked the elite of late fourth/beginning of third millennium Highland Region with the elites elsewhere, especially Orkney.

The available information regarding findspots, contexts, rock types and stylistic types of macehead presented in Table 5.3, and Figs 5.57 and 5.58 show the overall distribution of all types of Neolithic macehead in Britain (as of 1968; a few more have been found since then but none, to the author’s knowledge, in Highland Region). Examples of maceheads found in Highland Region are shown in Figs 5.40.2, 3, 5.59 and 5.60; see also macehead | British Museum, Ashmolean and macehead | British Museum for superb example of pestle and cushion maceheads from the Region. The distribution in Highland is markedly coastal and it is suspected that most, or all, are imports (although one, found in Caithness, is unfinished: NMS X.AH 197; Fig. 5.59.2).

Findspot; HER no.Macehead typeContext and associationsMaterialCurrent location; comment
Airdens, Sutherland MHG10072Maesmor (sub-type of ovoid)Stray find, discovered while clearing out a drainFlintNMS X.AH 139
Ormiegill, Caithness MHG2184OvoidOrkney-Cromarty passage tomb (secondary deposit); may have been deposited at same time as 2 oblique and 1 tranchet flint arrowheads, and possibly an edge-polished flint knifeStone (granite or similar stone)NMS X.EO 131
Achmelvich, Sutherland MHG12230OvoidStray find/no informationStoneDunrobin Castle Museum X88. Perforated pebble. Roe 1968 fig. 34. Need to check whether this is genuinely a macehead
River Crofts/Heights of Brae, Fodderty, Easter Ross MHG53546OvoidStray find/no informationStoneNMS X.AH 189. Not shown on Roe 1968 fig. 34
‘Caithness’ MHG60981OvoidStray find/no informationStoneNMS X.AH 197 Unfinished: perforation from each side is incomplete
High Pasture Cave (Uamh an Ard Achadh), Skye MHG32043  Ovoid or pestleFrom excavations at High Pasture Cave. Found outside the cave; probably a residual find in a post-Neolithic contextGabbroc/o excavator. Fragment
Carbost, Skye MHG5129 and MHG5030Orkney pestleStray find/ no informationPossibly Liassic limestoneKelvingrove (Glasgow) Art Gallery and Museum LA 709 Not in Roe 1968
Keiss, Caithness (not specifically mentioned in Highland HER or Canmore)Orkney pestleStray find(?). From Frances Tress Barry collection, so probably from one of his fieldwork episodesStone (described on label as ‘quartz-felsite’)Ashmolean Museum (1927-4038, wrongly described as ‘axe-hammer’). From the Frances Tress Barry collection. Roe 1968, fig. 34 Ashmolean
Dun Liath, Kilmuir, SkyeOrkney pestleFound in an Iron Age dunStone (gabbro)McManus Museum and Art Gallery, Dundee 1956-370; Roe 1968 fig. 34; Coutts 1971, 85, 87
RùmThames pestleStray find/no informationStone (highly distinctive)British Museum BM 1875,0403,203 (ex. Lukis Collection); Roe 1968, fig. 34 macehead | British Museum
Nigg beach, Easter Ross MHG61627Cushion macehead (half of)Stray findStoneTarbat Discovery Centre. Not in Roe 1968
‘Caithness’CushionStray find/no informationStone (dark grey with cream-coloured banding)British Museum BM Sturge.1071 (ex Sturge Collection). Gibson 1944, 25; macehead | British Museum
Melvich, Sutherland MHG61026No detailsStray find/no informationStoneCaithness Horizons ARC 5 Not in Roe 1968
Auldearn, Nairn MHG14356No detailsStray find/no informationStoneNot known. Uncertain whether this is the Orkney pestle macehead shown on Roe’s map (1968, fig. 34) but it may be

Table 5.3. Stone maceheads in Highland Region

Notes: 1. The British Museum online collections catalogue lists three items from Keiss Broch (ex. Frances Tress Barry Collection) as ‘maceheads’, but none is convincing as a macehead:

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1903-0320-1

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1903-0320-2

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1903-0320-3

2. Two perforated stone objects described as possible maceheads, found in a disturbed context at the site of a Bronze Age round house at Connagill, Sutherland (Dagg 2014), bear no resemblance to the Late Neolithic maceheads listed here and are excluded because: i) they are most likely to be of Bronze Age date and ii) they are not certainly maceheads; they could have had a different function.

Figure 5.57: Distribution of ovoid (including Maesmor) and pestle maceheads in Britain, as of 1968. (Further examples have been found since then.) From Roe 1968; ©The estate of Fiona Roe
Figure 5.58: Distribution of cushion maceheads in Britain, as of 1992. (Further examples have been found since then.) From Ritchie 1992 © The estate of P Roy Ritchie
Figure 5.59: Examples of maceheads found in Highland Region: 1. Ovoid, from River Crofts, Heights of Brae, Easter Ross; 2. Unfinished ovoid, probably from Caithness; 3. Pestle, Dun Liath, Skye (from Coutts 1971); 4. Fragment of a cushion macehead, Nigg Beach, Easter Ross. Note; the two views of the Nigg macehead fragment were taken in different lighting conditions and the side view most accurately conveys its actual colour. (1 and 4 lower) ©Trustees of NMS; (2) ©Alison Sheridan/NMS; (3) ©The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum; (4 upper) Crown Copyright 

The finest example is the exquisitely-decorated Maesmor-type ovoid macehead found at Airdens, Sutherland (MHG10072), decorated all over with a design featuring ground lozenges around its edge and incised lines across its top and bottom (Fig. 5.60; Roe 1968; Clarke et al 1985, 256 and fig. 5.7b). This was found during the cleaning out of a ditch (Clarke et al 1985, 256). The white stone used to make it has been identified as flint by the Geological Survey, Edinburgh (Roe 1971); this would have been a particularly challenging type of stone to perforate, as flint can shatter during the process. Reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) of this macehead by Marta Díaz-Guardamino (Fig. 5.60.3) has revealed details relating to its manufacture and decoration (Jones and Díaz-Guardamino 2019).

Two other Maesmor-type maceheads have been found along the coast, on the south side of the Moray Firth, at Urquhart (also of flint) and White Hill, Rafford, both in Moray (Roe 1968, figs 35b, 36a; the latter’s decoration is far less obvious). The overall distribution of Maesmor maceheads in Britain and Ireland is wide (Fig. 5.57), with the most famous example being found in the eastern passage tomb under Mound 1 at Knowth in the Boyne Valley (Clarke et al 1985, fig. 3.17). The Knowth example is particularly interesting as the spiral design on it is of the type of spiral seen in Orkney (eg on the Pierowall stone), rather than the type of spiral seen at the Knowth and Newgrange passage tombs. (See Sheridan 2014c for a discussion of the complex flow of influences between the Boyne Valley and Orkney.) The lozenge design seen on Maesmor maceheads closely resembles the lozenge designs seen on the major passage tombs of the Boyne Valley.

Figure 5.60: The Maesmor-type macehead from Airdens, Sutherland. 1.Photograph from Clarke et al. 1985; 2. Drawing from Roe 1968; 3.Photo and RTI images by Marta Díaz-Guardamino, from Jones and Díaz-Guardamino 2019. (1) ©Trustees of NMS; (2) Estate of Fiona Roe; (3) Marta Díaz-Guardamino, by permission of Trustees of NMS. Note that ‘Maesmor’, and not ‘Maesmawr’, is the correct spelling: Frances Llewellyn Lynch, pers comm

The date range for Maesmor maceheads cited above has been established on the basis of the dating of human remains from the eastern tomb at Knowth 1 (Schulting et al 2017) and of the dating of human remains associated with a lozenge-decorated antler macehead found in a Middle Neolithic individual grave at Liff’s Low, Derbyshire (3360–3090 cal BC, SUERC-26173, 4510±30 BP: Jay et al 2019; Loveday and Barclay 2010; cf. Simpson 1996b, no. 3, p. 301, fig. 5). While other lozenge-decorated antler maceheads, from a hoard of 11 maceheads found 4m deep at Windmill Lane, Brentford, Essex, have produced earlier dates of 3510–3140 cal BC and 3630–3360 cal BC (Loveday et al 2007; Simpson 1996b), nevertheless it seems most likely that the Airdens macehead, and other Maesmor-type stone maceheads, was made and used some time between 3200/3100 BC and 2900/2800 BC.

The similarities in design among the Maesmor maceheads suggest that they could have been made by a small number of highly skilled stoneworkers – or perhaps even just one person – but major questions remain: from where did the distinctive flint (and/or flint-like stone) come, and were they all made in one place, or by one or more specialist who travelled around? The Orcadian-style spiral on the Knowth Maesmor-type macehead points towards possible involvement by an Orkney-based specialist, although the raw material would not have been obtainable in Orkney. Nevertheless, we do know that maceheads were indeed made in Orkney, including some made from fine stone that had been imported to Orkney as raw material, for example from the Outer Hebrides (Anderson-Whymark et al 2017; Anderson-Whymark 2020b), and so it is within the bounds of possibility that a fine piece of flint had been imported to make the macehead that ended up in the Knowth passage tomb. For now, however, it is impossible to say where the Airdens macehead originated.

The other maceheads found in Highland Region are of the ovoid, pestle and cushion types. The fine ovoid macehead of granite (or granitic stone) found in the Orkney-Cromarty passage tomb with short horned cairn at Ormiegill, Caithness (MHG2184; Fig. 5.40.2, 3; Clarke et al 1985, 236, fig3.32) will have been a secondary deposit in a by-then ancient monument; it may be that the oblique and transverse arrowheads of distinctive black flint from the tomb, and the edge-polished knife (Henshall 1963, 254), were deposited at the same time. Once more, the question of where this macehead was made – quite possibly from an erratic cobble – is hard to answer, but given the existence of clear links with Orkney during the Neolithic, and given that several ovoid maceheads have been found in Orkney (eg Egilsay: Clarke et al 1985, fig. 7.19), importation from Orkney has to be a strong possibility.

The same is true of the pestle and cushion maceheads found in Highland Region (Fig. 5.59.3 and see below for examples curated by the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum). Recent finds at the Ness of Brodgar on Mainland Orkney (Anderson-Whymark 2020b) have demonstrated that both types were being produced there, within the time frame cited above. The fact that the cushion macehead fragment found on Nigg beach (MHG61627) had been broken may be significant, as in the area around Ness of Brodgar, many maceheads had been deliberately broken as part of the ceremonies undertaken there. It is, of course, possible that the Nigg example had broken accidentally, but if it had been an example of deliberate breakage, this offers a further point of comparison with Orcadian practice. (In general, however, a far higher proportion of maceheads found in Highland Region are intact than in Orkney.)

The use of visually striking stone for making maceheads – as seen, for example, in the pestle maceheads from Rùm (macehead | British Museum) and Keiss (Ashmolean), and in the cushion macehead from ‘Caithness’ (macehead | British Museum), as well as in the Airdens and Ormiegill maceheads – is a characteristic of this type of artefact. The choice of stone, and the care and skill with which the maceheads were manufactured, underlines their importance as objects of high social value.

Further research is currently being carried out on the maceheads found in Highland Region, as part of a broader study of British and Irish maceheads undertaken with Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin). The results of that research are awaited with interest.

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