Great Neolithic Balls of Stone

Neolithic carved stone ball from Sheriffmuir, Perth & Kinross, acquired by Perth Museum & Art Gallery in 2019 with an NFA grant of £1,625.

Perth Museum is delighted to welcome into its collection a stunning example of a Neolithic carved stone ball, that uniquely Scottish element of prehistoric material culture. It is significant both archaeologically and for the public support it garnered in our bid to raise the £3,250 reward to the finder.

Sheriffmuir Neolithic carved stone ball

Sheriffmuir Neolithic carved stone ball. © Hugo Anderson-Whymark/National Museums Scotland

These astonishing stone balls are generally dated to the Later Neolithic period, around 3200 – 2500 BC. They are almost exclusively associated with Scotland where around 520 are known to have been found, with only a handful known from the North of England, Ireland and Norway. The majority have been found by chance rather than by excavation and their purpose is not fully understood. Curator of Prehistory at National Museums Scotland, Dr Anderson-Whymark writes:

These artefacts have captured the imagination for more than 150 years and despite much debate we’re still not certain how they were used. Were they weapons, symbols of status and power or something more practical? The newly discovered ball from Sheriffmuir is an exceptionally fine example and one of less than 50 that have been highly decorated. It would have been treasured in the Neolithic and will be the star of any Neolithic display.

Perth Museum’s collection contains a dozen stone balls exhibiting a wide range of stone types and designs and coming from locations across Perth & Kinross. The new addition will go on display alongside these in a new museum currently under development in Perth.

Seven Neolithic stone balls

Seven of the Neolithic balls in the Perth collection preparatory to their display at the National Gallery of Scotland © Perth Museum & Art Gallery

This new example is carved from a fine grained igneous stone and was found on a farm near Sheriffmuir. The majority of Scotland’s stone balls have been found much further to the north, making this example one of the most southerly of the known Scottish finds.

As well as coming from a new place, its design is also new for the Perth collection. The basic form of a round ball with six low knobs is quite widely seen but this example is unusual as two of the knobs have been decorated. One is incised with a grid of cross-hatched parallel lines and the other a set of five parallel lines. Dr Anderson-Whymark suggests that both decorative schemes were applied free-hand, probably with different tools and by two different people, though it is not known whether or not they were decorated at the same time. Dr Anderson-Whymark has taken 3D images of the ball to create a model which can be explored here: https://skfb.ly/6GwpW

The enigma of Neolithic carved stone balls has made them popular with our visitors. In 2011 Perth Museum worked with glass artist Louise Tait who made a glass interpretation of one of the stone balls in our collection. The installation and the glamour of the balls drew a huge response from visitors, who were asked to consider what such objects could have been used for. Answers included sports and games, hunting, weapons, ritual, currency, weights and social identity and prestige.

Outside the Glass Box by Louise Tait

Outside the Glass Box by Louise Tait © Perth Museum & Art Gallery

The other significant aspect of this object is the new fundraising initiative it signalled for Perth Museum. Recognising the very difficult funding climate in which museums operate, the Archaeology & History Section of the Perthshire Society of Natural Sciences introduced a new element in the Society’s long-standing partnership with the museum with the specific objective of helping the museum to continue to acquire significant archaeological finds allocated through the Treasure Trove process. Using the Just Giving platform, the Society set up a page calling for donations: as a test case we decided to focus on the Sheriffmuir ball and sought to raise half the reward fee, £1,625 to match the 50% grant from the NFA. The experiment was a resounding success with our total raised well within the two-month campaign timescale. The Archaeology & History Section and the museum were delighted with this success and look forward to seeing how we might develop the scheme for future Treasure Trove appeals.

Mark A Hall
Collections Officer
Perth Museum & Art Gallery

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