Carved Stone Ball

01 March 2010

News Type:
Find of the Month

This carved stone ball was found during recent excavations at Tarbat Church, Portmahomack. It is not a Pictish find, but dates to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, between 3200 and 1500 BC. Although many objects from the Neolithic, such as the leaf shaped arrowheads featured last month or polished stone axeheads, are found throughout the British Isles, carved stone balls are a uniquely Scottish find, specifically eastern Scotland, with over 400 known. Most have been found in the north, especially Aberdeenshire, though a number are from Easter Ross. New examples are found every few years; a recently found example from Invergordon is on display at Inverness Museum.

Most carved stone balls, like the Tarbat example, have 6 knobs, though there are examples with many small pimple-like eruptions, with one having 160 knobs. Some have incised decoration, but most are plain. Some are finely done, but others are very crude. Some are deeply carved, while others have only shallowly etched knobs. They are made in a variety of stone. They are all approximately the same size.

Very few of the balls have been found in dated archaeological contexts, although the fact that several are known from Skara Brae in Orkney has generally led to a Neolithic date. A number of others are recorded as being found in cists or cairns, which has extended this dating into the Bronze Age. However, most have been single finds without context.

The function of these objects has been much debated. In the past they have been considered weapons, for use in weighing, games, as identity tokens, amulets, an erotic function and a range of other possibilities, but they are generally considered to have a ritual function. Recently Todd argued that their size makes them perfect for throwing, with the usual rough surface intentional to reduce air drag (like golf balls). This theory, however, does not explain the elaborately decorated items nor the fact that most are not damaged, so were not thrown at rocks or hard surfaces (were they just thrown in the sand or marshy areas?).

So the jury remains out. Perhaps you have other ideas? And there is still the puzzle about why a Neolithic carved stone ball ended up in Tarbat Church, in the packing of a 17th century stairwell.

This carved stone ball is currently on display at Tarbat Discovery Centre.

Further information:

The SCRAN website has pictures of a large number of carved stone balls (all Highland Council libraries have free access and subscriptions to SCRAN).

Dorothy N. Marshall 1976-1977. ‘Carved stone balls,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108, pp 40-72. Available on-line.

Dorothy N. Marshall 1983. ‘Further notes on carved stone balls,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 113, pp. 628-30. Available on-line.

T.N. Todd 2006. ‘The aerodynamics of carved stone balls,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 61-74. (Unfortunately not on-line yet, but available in Inverness Reference Library).

Martin Carver 2008. Portmahomack. Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh University Press.


Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), The Goods Shed, The Old Station, Strathpeffer, Ross-Shire, Scotland IV14 9DH
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