5.4.3.2.4 Carved Stone Balls

Around 37 carved stone balls have been found in Highland Region (Datasheet 5.4; Map 5.4; Fig. 5.61; see Datasheet 5.4 for explanation as to why the total remains approximate). Thanks to careful investigations by Hugo Anderson-Whymark – including matching casts with originals, and resolving duplicate records – it has been possible to correct errors in the existing databases, including the HER. Most have been found along the eastern side of Highland Region, where the distribution pattern links this area both with the epicentre of carved stone ball distribution in and around Aberdeenshire, and with Orkney, where several have been found, most recently at Ness of Brodgar (Marshall 1977; 1983; Edmonds 1992; Card et al 2020).

Map 5.4 Carved Stone Balls

In common with most examples found elsewhere, the Highland Region carved stone balls are ‘stray finds’, with no obvious archaeological context. The one claimed exception is the example from Bruachaig, Ross and Cromarty (MHG6304; Forrest 2007), which was found in 1898, allegedly in a cist that contained a Beaker. The account comes from the descendants of the finder and, as with all old finds and accounts that are passed down several generations, caution needs to be exercised as the reliability of the account cannot be guaranteed. If the ball had genuinely been found inside the cist (and not nearby), it would constitute an unique instance (or virtually so) of an ancient object being incorporated within a Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age cist. Several carved stone balls happen to have been found in locations subsequently used as churches or churchyards, with one from Achness, Sutherland (MHG11881) being found when a grave was dug, and one found in rubble infilling part of Tarbat Old Church, Easter Ross (MHG8475). Other findspots include a river (Thurso River; MHG1471) and the vicinity of a stream (Stoer, north-west Sutherland; MHG12252), and high places (Ben-a-Chielt, Caithness (MHG1129); Beinn Tharsuinn (Ben Tharson), Easter Ross (MHG8168) and Tomnahurich (Tom-na-Hurich) Inverness; MHG3803).

Figure 5.61: Examples of carved stone balls from Highland Region: 1. South end of Loch Lochy; 2. Skye; 3. Mill of Cromdale; 4. Caithness; 5. Alness; 6. Caithness; 7. Tom-na-hurich; 8. Near Broch of Yarhouse. Photos by Hugo Anderson-Whymark; ©Trustees of NMS

A much-discussed category of artefact, mired in unhelpful popular notions of ‘enigma’ and ‘mystery’, carved stone balls are likely to date to the same date bracket as the maceheads and, like them, these could well have been both weapons and weapons of social exclusion. (The probable use of balls and/or maceheads as weapons is clear from examples of blunt force trauma on skulls found in chamber tombs in Orkney and at Strathglebe, Skye: see Sheridan’s Rhind lectures 3 and 4 for further information: https://www.socantscot.org/event/rhind-lectures-2020/.)

As for whether they were imported to Highland Region, or whether any were made in the Region, research by Hunterian Museum geologist John Faithfull for the doctoral research by Christopher Stewart-Moffatt will have identified the rock types used, and the publication of Stewart-Moffatt’s thesis is awaited to see what conclusions have been drawn; as with maceheads, the use of erratic cobbles is a clear possibility in at least some cases. Research by Hugo Anderson-Whymark has confirmed that by no means all carved stone balls were made in and around Aberdeenshire; some were made in Orkney, and a few in the Outer Hebrides. It is suspected, however, that most of the examples found in Highland Region are imports from elsewhere, possibly Aberdeenshire. In any case, their presence in Highland Region confirms the north-south interactions between the inhabitants of this region and their neighbours to the north and to the southeast in the centuries around 3000 BC, and suggests that Highland society at the time was not wholly egalitarian.

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