Archaeologists Discover 5,000-Year-Old Polished Stone Balls in Scottish Tomb

Archeologists live and dig in a quest for rare artifacts. Shards of pottery get them excited. Handcrafted tools make them giddy. How do they feel when they find 5,000-year-old polished stone balls?

“Professor Vicki Cummings while assessing this area certainly got the largest gasp from the team when she uncovered a polished stone ball. This is an extremely exciting find.”

Humans have always loved polished stone balls

Scotland’s The Press and Journal reports the exciting discovery by a team of archeologists from Central Lancashire University and the National Museums of Scotland working at an endangered site at Tresness in Sanday, one of the Orkney islands in far northern Scotland. A chambered tomb there is part of a Neolithic settlement but the cliff it is on is in danger of collapsing into the sea due to erosion. This is the first time the team has been to the site since 2019 due to COVID, so the discovery of the carved and polished ball made the long wait worthwhile. And then …

“A cracking find from the tomb! Only 20 or so Neolithic polished stone balls have been found in Orkney and few have been recovered from secure contexts. This one is the size of a cricket ball, perfectly spherical and beautifully finished. It’s split along bedding in the banded sandstone but will be amazing when conserved.”

Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a senior curator of prehistory at National Museums of Scotland, announced in the project blog the discovery of a second polished stone ball, 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter, in the chamber of the early Neolithic phase of the tomb. (Photos here.) Why are these archeologists so excited about this find?

According to Ancient Origins, most carved stone balls dating to the period of 3500 BCE and 1500 BCE are only 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter, which makes them easy to fit in the hand and use as a throwing weapon for hunting or battles. They could also have been used for fishing weights. On the other hand, these balls were quite rare in Orkney, and the 20 or so that have been found were perfectly rounded and carefully smoothed and polished, suggesting they were ceremonial artifacts. That’s just a guess – they’re hoping to find more and solve the mystery of their true purpose. Neolithic cricket? Stone age baseball? After-feast croquet?

Neolithic juggling?

“Sadly, the site is vanishing into the sea.”

Professor Vicki Cummings says her team is digging as fast as they can before erosion sweeps away this historic site. And, as with so many other things these days, the cause is human. Last month, for the first time, archaeologists discovered two pieces of Neolithic wood – the area was once heavily wooded but human development and climate change have completely removed the trees.

Perhaps our leaders should think about these balls when they’re trying to decide what to do to stop the destruction of our entire world.

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