Neolithic stone balls found in Orkney tomb

The purpose of the balls remains obscure, but they could have been used as weapons to inflict head injuries, or as ritual objects.

Archaeologists excavating a 5,500- year-old chambered tomb on the Sanday peninsula of Tresness, Orkney (see CA 313), have clarified the monument’s layout and recovered two enigmatic polished stone balls. The team – from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and National Museums Scotland – is investigating the function of the early Neolithic monument, which has been damaged by coastal erosion.

Excavations have revealed a five-celled, rectangular original structure, which was then rebuilt as a Bronze Age round cairn around 1,800 BC. Dig director Professor Vicki Cummings of UCLan told CA that the project’s 2019 investigation revealed an entrance passage connected to Cell 4, and a Bronze Age cist within Cell 1 of the Neolithic monument, while the 2021 excavations have uncovered several unusual finds, including two ‘exceptionally well-preserved’ smooth stone balls, deliberately placed within the tomb.

‘The first one was found tucked up against the first, left-hand orthostat in Cell 1, and the second one was tucked up right in the corner against the orthostat at the back of Cell 3,’ Vicki said. The purpose of the balls remains obscure, but Vicki says they could have been used as weapons to inflict head injuries, or as ritual objects. Although carved stone balls are ‘a Scottish phenomenon’, she added, the team has been considering connections between smooth, polished stone balls found ‘in passage tomb contexts’ in Ireland.

Image: Mike Lawlor.

The archaeologists also found deposits of cremated human bone between Cells 2 and 3, which Vicki said ‘is reasonably unusual for a stalled cairn’, where inhumations would be the more expected form of burial. Surprisingly, over 100 Skaill knives were found throughout the Neolithic structure.

Cell 4, at the end of the entrance passage, contained evidence of extremely uncommon practices: a ‘series of burnt deposits’, which, according to Vicki, ‘show that in the earliest phase of the monument they were repeatedly lighting little fires’ (perhaps ‘cleansing fires’) in this compartment.

‘We don’t know the dates of everything that we’ve got from the monument at this stage’, she told CA. ‘Some of this activity may be later, but certainly quite a lot of it is primary.’ Post-excavation analysis is now in progress.