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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Three Sheep and a Famous Artist

North Ronaldsay ram, ewe and lamb acquired by Stromness Museum in 1953 with an NFA grant of £1.10s.

Stromness Museum had the distinction of being the first museum to receive an award from the Fund when, in December 1953, the Local Museums Purchase Fund, as it was then called, awarded a grant of one pound and ten shillings for the acquisition of three specimens of North Ronaldsay sheep.

Picture credit: Wee Eck2

Picture credit: Wee Eck2

The North Ronaldsay sheep is a recognised rare breed and represents an early stage in the evolution of domestic sheep. A recent study showed that today’s breed is genetically similar to remains of sheep found at the neolithic village of Skara Brae in mainland Orkney. They live most of their lives on the shore outside the sheep dyke that runs around the island of North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney islands. The dyke keeps them off the better grazing and they survive on seaweed. The group is one of the key exhibits in the Natural History Gallery at Stromness Museum. The ram stands proudly high on a rock, much as he would have on the North Ronaldsay shore, surveying his flock. In the current display the North Ronaldsay sheep are joined by a selection of resident Orkney mammals.

Picture credit: Rebecca Marr

Picture credit: Rebecca Marr

Though an important acquisition, the sheep were to gain further significance to the collection when a renowned Orcadian artist offered to paint a backdrop for the group. Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976) was appointed King’s Limner and Painter in Scotland following his retirement as Director of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1948. Cursiter spent his summers in Stromness, eventually retiring here. He was a great supporter of Stromness Museum and this painting, one of the largest Cursiter landscapes known, is an important part of the museum’s collection.

Kathleen Ireland
Hon President

Janette Park
Hon Curator
Stromness Museum
http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum/