by Grace Woolmer-White
In 2017, a Neolithic carved stone ball was discovered during tree-planting works on the Blackford Estate, Sheriffmuir (MPK20240). Located at the centre of a plough furrow at, it was recovered from the base of the topsoil on an interface with underlying sandy glacial till, 20cm from the ground surface. There was no indication of any associated archaeological features, and the findspot was located just to the south of the crest of a ridge, one of a many in the local landscape. This ridge was relatively slight but fairly prominent within the landscape, and elevated enough to provide extensive and commanding views of the surrounding area.
Made from a fine mid greyish green igneous rock, with two fine white veins, the carved stone ball was in pristine condition. It had six symmetrical protruding circular knobs of roughly equal size, two of which were decorated: one with a cross hatched grid of 13 by 15 incised lines, and the second with five incised parallel lines across the centre of the knob. Microscopic analysis revealed that the cross hatching had been formed by incising parallel lines in one direction before the stone was rotated 90o, and then the second set of lines incised. No traces of marking out were visible, unlike on the knob with the five central lines, which appeared to overlie numerous lines on a similar orientation. Both designs had irregularities, indicating they were created freehand. The differences between them suggests that they were produced using different tools, and likely also by different people.
Carved stone balls are enigmatic objects; their distribution is confined to the northeast of Scotland, and they are accepted as Neolithic in date, although their function is unknown and largely debated. Of the 520 known examples, less than 40% have only findspot information comprising parish only, and less than 50 have information relating to the context of their discovery (Anderson-Whymark, forthcoming). The discovery of the Sheriffmuir carved stone ball was thus particularly significant, as it offered the opportunity to investigate the context of the stone and its precise location in the larger landscape.
As part of this, an area 50m by 50m was field walked to take advantage of the weathered upturned soils from the forestry operations. 16 struck lithic artefacts were recovered which were scattered across much of the ridge, but with a particular concentration within 20m of the carved stone ball, on the south side of the ridge. The scatter comprised mostly small flakes, but also a flint side scraper and an unfinished transverse arrowhead dating to the Late Neolithic. Most of these were made on flint derived from small pebbles, but also present was quartz, quartzite, agate and three Arran pitchstone objects, comprising a chip, a blade-like flake and micro-blade. Pitchstone was traded over large distance in the late Neolithic, and this, in addition to the transverse arrowhead, indicates a late Neolithic date for the scatter.
There was no sign or damage or use wear on the carved stone ball, and its use remains mysterious. The separate designs on the two knobs may indicate a long biography of manufacture, the decoration likely produced by different people at different times, with the designs reflecting different intentions or meanings. Found in the same area as the late Neolithic scatter, the ball was likely deposited here along with the scatter as part of late Neolithic activity on the ridge, and further fieldwork to investigate the nature of this activity would likely prove rewarding and contribute to our understanding of the Neolithic within this upland area of Perthshire.
The ball was Claimed by Treasure Trove in 2018 (TT 138/18) and allocated to Perth Museum and Art Gallery (accessioned as 2019.174). Information presented here is derived from the article by Anderson-Whymark and Hall (2021).
Anderson-Whymark, H 2020 ‘Sheriffmuir, Chance find’, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (New Ser.) 20, 154.
Anderson-Whymark, H and Hall, MA 2021 ‘A decorated carved stone ball and associated lithic scatter from the Blackford Estate, Sheriffmuir, Perthshire’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 26, 1-6.
Anderson-Whymark, H in preparation ‘Carved stone balls: a reconsideration of their context and date’.