A 5,500-year-old tomb discovered on a Scottish island will soon be reclaimed by the sea. Archaeologists racing to excavate the site, “before it’s lost forever,” have discovered two enigmatic carved stone balls at the site. Over the last two centuries archaeologists in Scotland have only discovered about 500 of these mysterious balls.

Dating back to between 3500 BC and 1500 BC, most carved stone balls measure around 3 inches (7.6 cm) in diameter, therefore, fitting easily into the palm of a closed hand. A 2017 Ancient Origins article explored a range of possible purposes for these stone balls. While some archaeologists maintain they were hunting projectiles and fishing weights, others point out that most are flawless, and suggest they were sacred artifacts passed down from generation to generation.

The Press and Journal article reported that Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, senior curator of prehistory (Paleolithic – Neolithic) at National Museum of Scotland, posted about the discovery of the two balls on Twitter. He pointed out that only about 20 carved stone balls dating to the Neolithic have ever been found on Orkney. The two balls recently discovered on Orkney were described by Dr Anderson-Whymark as a “cracking find from the tomb.” The researcher described one of the balls as “size of a cricket ball,” and that it was “perfectly spherical and beautifully finished.”

The second carved stone ball found in the Neolithic tomb site at the edge of the sea at Tres Ness, Sanday, Orkney, Scotland. (University of Central Lancashire)

The second carved stone ball found in the Neolithic tomb site at the edge of the sea at Tres Ness, Sanday, Orkney, Scotland. ( University of Central Lancashire )

The Rare Carved Stone Balls Of Scotland: Purpose Unknown!

Carved from both hard and soft stones, most carved stone balls have six projections (knobs) but they have been discovered with as many as 160. In 1876, J. Alexander Smith suggested that when bound to wooden handles the balls would have made efficient “ axe-like weapons .” However, in the 1970s Dorothy N. Marshall pointed out that most of the balls are nearly flawless, and that ancient people wouldn’t have spent that much time and effort on spherical accuracy for a weapon.

The most recently discovered stone balls were found on what is, arguably, the most astoundingly beautiful of the many spectacular beaches in Orkney . Tres Ness, on the island of Sanday, is according to Orkney.com “a special place.” The website says you will often be the only people on the beach, “soaking up the ancient scenery as if you’re on a deserted island.” However, for the last few years the prevailing silence has been disturbed by the chinking and chipping sounds of archaeologist trowels resounding from one of the island’s Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement that is about to fall into the sea forever.

The Neolithic tomb site on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys where the two latest carved stone balls were found. And it is easy to understand that this cliffside site will one day soon fall into the sea. (University of Central Lancashire)

The Neolithic tomb site on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys where the two latest carved stone balls were found. And it is easy to understand that this cliffside site will one day soon fall into the sea. ( University of Central Lancashire )

Changes Times, Changing Coast Lines

The two Orkney stone balls were discovered within a Neolithic burial tomb. According to a report in Press and Journal the tomb on Tres Ness is formally known as “a stalled cairn” where the burial space was compartmentalized. Dating back to around 3,500 BC the burial structure represents one of the oldest remaining buildings in Scotland and it was here that a team of archaeologists found the two rare stone balls. And luckily too, as the site is quickly being clawed away by the encroaching sea .

Professor Vicki Cummings is a reader in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire. She speculates that the tomb at Tres Ness was probably associated with the Neolithic settlement at the Cata Sand archaeological site. Located about a mile-and-a-half away from the Tres Ness tomb, Cummings said that both sites and the beautiful beach at Tres Ness are under immediate threat from coastal erosion .

Another view of the Neolithic cliffside tomb side on Sanday. The left edge of the tomb is a seaside cliff that is eroding quickly. (University of Central Lancashire)

Another view of the Neolithic cliffside tomb side on Sanday. The left edge of the tomb is a seaside cliff that is eroding quickly. ( University of Central Lancashire )

Sadly, The Sanday Orkney Site Is Vanishing Into The Sea

In the early Neolithic period both sites would have been located on a headland high above the coastline overlooking the sea from the distance and from above. However, like sugary drinks working away at the roots of teeth, over time, the headland has been eaten away leaving the sites on the edge of a new, super-erosive, tidal coastline. Cummings added that one major factor for the rapidly changing environment is the lack of trees, whereas in the Neolithic the entire area was wooded.

Cummings said, “sadly the site is vanishing into the sea,” so the focus of the site archaeologists is to extract as much information as possible “before it is basically lost forever.” The discovery of the two rare carved stone balls really is what Dr Anderson-Whymark said, “a cracking find from the tomb.”

Top image: The first carved stone ball found at the Tress Ness, Sanday, Orkney Neolithic tomb site that “teeters” on the edge of the encroaching sea today. Source: University of Central Lancashire

By Ashley Cowie.





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