23.7.10

Neolithic Carved Stone Balls and the God of Gaps

On a recent trip to Orkney, I enjoyed visiting all the Neolithic sites and speculating about the Mysteries (use spooky voice).  Such as these little objects here:


Many balls like these have been found all over north-eastern Scotland, including Orkney, so they are obviously expressions of a 'meme'.  But what did the people who made them think they were all about?  Unlike a stone knife, or a needle, they fall into the category of objects that are hard to interpret once that culture is gone.  They could have had a practical purpose: as weapons, tools, or part of a game, all uses suggested by the strategy of 'look around for something similar whose use you do know'.  I imagine there are lots of potential uses for round, heavy things with convenient knobs for purchase.  I feel sure that any archaeologist worth their salt would have looked for microwear by now, but reports weren't very forthcoming.

What was forthcoming, at the Orkney sites, was a heavy emphasis on explanations that make guesses about social organization, culture or religion.  Which is why my post has the 'God of Gaps' in the title.  I'm curious about the kind of explanation people will generate to fill a Gaping Gap in their knowledge. Two of my favorite stone ball explanations are:

1) That the balls were oracles and that the way they fell when they rolled told you what the gods had in mind for you.  It occurs to me that this must have offered about as many options as an origami fortune teller.

2) That holding a ball gave you the right to speak at meetings, if you weren't holding it, it was your turn to listen.  How disciplined our forbears must have been, in that case.  You just can't imagine that we're related to them when you observe a little spat on the net these days.  It would be nice to think that this theory was based on at least some certainty of similar procedures in known cultures.



Neolithic stone balls: more like a paper fortune teller, or more like petanque bowls?
 

My preferred explanation is a bit of a hybrid, and also completely made up.  I think the balls used in a game which was played in a similar way to the traditional English conkers. You fastened a strong rope around your stone and tried to smash the stone belonging to your opponent.  Tournaments were held at the Henges. Winning probably did give you a right to speak or settle questions, so the stone really could decide your fate or that of your tribe.  In such a high stakes situation, you can easily imagine how the stones would double up as weapons on occasion ('Oh woops, sorry, missed your stone, hit your head instead').  Or as execution methods.  And particularly successful stones would become imbued with a magical aura, acquiring decoration matching their worth. Owning one could bring you good fortune, but they were also associated with doom.  Just like conkers.

What's cute about this kind of explanation is that you can build up a whole picture of the society you're dealing with in your mind.  You could use it as the basis of a novel!  That's also what's wrong with it. Well, OK, it has a few other problems - where's the microwear..., and macrowear in this case, not to mention fragments.  But while we're making things up, I thought I could join in.

And I couldn't resist referring to this other Mysterious prehistoric object with Mysterious possible uses and meanings.  I'm sure any archaeologist worth their salt would have checked if for microwear AND residues by now???

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