Mysterious Stone Balls Found in Deteriorating Scottish Tomb

Mysterious Stone Balls Found in Deteriorating Scottish Tomb
Image: Mike Lawlor/Tresness Chambered Tomb Excavation 2021

Archaeologists working in the Orkney Islands of Scotland have uncovered two polished stone balls dating back to the Neolithic.

The stone balls were found inside the Tresness stalled cairn, an early Neolithic tomb located on Sanday, one of dozens of islands in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago. It’s a significant discovery, as only a small handful of these prehistoric balls have ever been found in a burial context.

“A cracking find from the tomb!,” tweeted team co-leader Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an archaeologist with National Museums Scotland (NMS), on August 18 after his team found the first of the two balls. “Only 20 or so Neolithic polished stone balls have been found in Orkney and few have been recovered from secure contexts,” he added.

Five days later, Anderson-Whymark announced the discovery of the second stone ball.

“This one is the size of a cricket ball, perfectly spherical and beautifully finished,” he tweeted on August 24. “It’s split along bedding in the banded sandstone but will be amazing when conserved.”

At approximately 5,500 years old, Tresness Tomb is among Scotland’s oldest monuments. Inhabitants of the nearby settlement of Cata Sands were likely responsible for the chambered tomb.

The site was explored in the 1980s, but archaeologists have been investigating the chambered tomb in earnest since 2017. There’s an added sense of urgency now, as the site is being eaten away by the sea and a collapsing cliff on which the tomb stands. As the excavation team notes on its dig diary and blog, it’s “desirable to explore specific research questions” at a site under threat, rather than spending time on a site that’s not threatened. The team is working to collect as many artifacts as possible and document the Tresness site before it disappears. Archaeologist Vicki Cummings from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) co-leads the excavation.

The first week of the 2021 excavation resulted in the discovery of shells, animal bones, and pottery fragments, but the “largest gasp from the team” came when Cummings found the first polished stone ball, according to the team’s diary.

Around 500 stone balls have been found in Scotland, and, as noted, only a select few have been found inside a burial site. The purpose of the balls isn’t known, but the finely carved objects could symbolise power. It’s also possible that the balls were used as weapons, thrown at or brought down onto people’s heads. Indeed, skulls found elsewhere in Orkney show “signs of such injury,” as The Scotsman reports.

Excavations are ongoing at Tresness Tomb, so more discoveries await. The team has also created 3D models of the stalled cairn (here and here), documenting changes to the site as excavations continue.