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        Carved Stone Balls: (Petrospheres)

These small, carved stone balls are distinctly Scottish objects, with over 425 known. Most have been found in Aberdeenshire. They are similar in size and a few are decorated with spirals and curved motifs.

While most carved balls are Scottish objects, several have been discovered in Orkney and a few have been found on Skye, Iona, Lewis, Harris and Uist. In addition, some have been uncovered in Ireland and England. (1)

Mathematicians are interested in Carved Stone Balls because of their aesthetic beauty as they have amongst them all the symmetrical forms of the five Platonic solids.

Carved stone balls have been found with as many as 160 knobs, but six is the most common number.

 

 

 The Scottish Carved Stone Balls:

They first began to appear at around 1850, with all examples being made of stone except a single bronze specimen from Lanarkshire (2)

Very few have been found in secure archaeological contexts and their dating was hotly debated for many years - it was once suggested that they were Saxon. However, examples have been found during excavations at the later Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae, Orkney. The decoration on many of the balls is similar to that on other artefacts of the period, such as Grooved Ware pottery and passage tomb art.

The balls can be quite elaborate; the most common ones are those with six projecting knobs, which may be plain or decorated. They are usually very similar in size (3). Of 387 balls known at the time of Marshal's exhaustive study, 375 were 'much the same size, with a diameter of 70mm, 12 large balls of 90-114mm and 7 oval balls'. The uniformity of size is one of the most remarkable features of the balls, although they display a wide variety of treatments. (4)

Carved stone balls as high-status objects:

If we look to the burial record for later prehistory we find that the burials in monuments represent just a small percentage of the population. Although we do occasionally find what might be described as 'high status' objects interred with the body of the deceased (the stone mace-head with bone-decorated handle from Bush Barrow for example), not a single carved stone ball has been found in this context. They invariably come to light as stray finds in farmers field (with a handful of exceptions), and never from a context that would indicate any elevated status.

 

Carved Stone Balls: Some Examples.

 

Towie, Aberdeenshire: This carved stone ball (3.00" diameter), was found at Glass Hill, Towie in Aberdeenshire. It dates from between 3200 and 2500 BC.

The 'Towie' ball has four knobs, three of them decorated with spirals or dots and rings. The designs closely resemble those pecked into the stones of the passage mound at Newgrange in Ireland.

Carved stone balls are distinctly Scottish objects, with over 425 known. Most have been found in Aberdeenshire. They are similar in size and a few are decorated with spirals and curved motifs. The Towie ball is an exceptionally fine example. (1)

 

 

Skara Brae, Orkneys:

Perhaps the most important discovery of carved stone balls was made at the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae in Orkney. The excavations there provide a contextual date placing them firmly in the Neolithic. Furthermore, it was one of the very few occasions when more than one ball was recovered. They are usually encountered as stray finds as a result of agricultural activity. Therefore Skara Brae provides a wonderfully rich context for these objects, as they were found in context with other ground stone tools and in-situ at a Neolithic habitation site.

 

 

 

Braes of Biffie, Buchan, Aberdeenshire:

The six projections, and roughened surface of this Greenstone ball are typical of the majority of carved stone balls. Almost half of all known carved balls have six projections and most were not finished to the high standard of the 'Towie' ball (Above).

 
 
 
 

The Platonic Solids.

Some researchers have suggested that carved stone balls were attempts to realise the Platonic solids. There are five (and only five) Platonic solids (regular polyhedra). These are: - the tetrahedron (4 faces), cube (6 faces), octahedron (8 faces), dodecahedron (12 faces) and icosahedron (20 faces). They get their name from the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato (c427-347BC) who wrote about them in his treatise, Timaeus.

The Greeks taught that these five solids were the core patterns of physical creation. Four of the solids were seen as the archetypal patterns behind the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), while the fifth was held to be the pattern behind the life force itself, the Greeks' ether. These same shapes are now realised to be intimately related to the arrangements of protons and neutrons in the elements of the periodic table. (5)

The Platonic solids can be traced onto the surface of a sphere through a process called radial projection, with each face having the same angles and shape. Carved stone balls come in many shapes, but most have bosses equal to the number of faces on the Platonic solids. Their makers were generating spherical objects with maximal symmetry. The number of bosses on the balls as listed by Marshall, were analysed by Manoel de Campos Almeida, a professor of mathematics who is interested in the Platonic solids. He determined that the number of bosses was not randomly allocated (over 75% of all carved stone balls have a number of bosses that equates with one of the five Platonic solids) proving mathematically that Neolithic people were able to count to at least 135 and were radially-projecting the Platonic solids (and their duals) in the hardest material available to them at the time, some 1500 years before Plato wrote about them in Timaeus.

(The Harmony of the Spheres)

 
 

Gallery of Images:

Petrospheres from the Orkneys.

Photo Credits: University of Aberdeen.

 (Images from Glasgow Museum Collection)

(Article: Archaeological Data Service 1976-77)

(Petrospheres Homepage)

(Costa Rica Balls)

(Orkney's Homepage)

(Other Scottish Prehistoric Sites)

 

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References:

1). http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-033-206-C&PHPSESSID=0m851am1612gh5fi5bfltvd5g5&scache=25cl220v88&searchdb=scran&PHPSESSID=0m851am1612gh5fi5bfltvd5g5
2). http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/PSAS_2002/pdf/vol_048/48_407_420.pdf
3). http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_prb/t/three_carved_stone_balls.aspx
4). Marshall, D. N. (1983). "Further notes on Carved Stone Balls". Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 113, pp. 628-646.
5). Laurence Hecht, The Geometric Basis for the Periodicity of the Elements, 21st Century, May-June 1988, p. 18. 
 
 

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