Two centuries after a slew of carved stone balls were discovered in northeast Scotland, experts are still puzzled as to what these mysterious objects were for.

Neolithic Stone Balls

A total of 525 intricately hewn stone balls about the size of a baseball were discovered mostly in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, although a few were unearthed in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, England, Ireland, and as far north as Norway.

The National Museums Scotland houses 140 of these balls from Scotland and the Orkney islands and 60 other casts of items from other sites. Due to the popularity of the stone balls, the museum has decided to create virtual 3D models that can be accessed for free through its Sketchfab account.

Early discoveries dated the stone balls back to the Iron Age, which took place around 1,800 to 1,100 years ago. However, newer dating techniques pushed the date back to the Neolithic period 5,000 years ago, where humanity's ancestors would have used nothing else but primitive stone tools to create the perfect spherical shape and chip away at it to produce the opulent patterns.

Mystery From The Stone Age

Despite being considered as one of the most beautiful works of art from the Stone Age, the carved stone balls remain a mystery to archaeologists. Some theories postulate that the balls were used as weapons by Neolithic warriors, either as maceheads for crushing weapons or tied with sinews thrown at enemies just like South American bolas.

Others believe the balls may have had a more benign purpose as weights and measures for Stone Age merchants. It is also possible that they could have been used by ancient mathematicians to describe geometrical shapes.

Still, another theory is that the stone balls may have been used as rollers for transporting massive stones used for stone monuments, such as the Stonehenge or they could have been a status symbol or a religious object. The variety of theories are endless.

"Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible," says Hugo Anderson-Whymark, curator of early prehistory, Scottish history, and archaeology at the National Museums of Scotland.

Virtual 3D Models

A total of 60 virtual stone balls are available for viewing online. The collection represents a wide variety of stone materials, including knobbed balls made from granite and sandstone balls covered in rounded bumps that make them look like "enormous petrified mulberries."

These include the most famous Towie ball, which was found near the village of Towie in northeastern Scotland in the 1800s. The Towie ball features spiral patterns woven together across three of the four lobes. Archaeologists recognize the Towie ball as one of the best works of Neolithic art.

Many of the patterns, including the spirals and circles, can be found in other Stone Age objects. The Neolithic passage graves, for instance, were engraved with the same interwoven spirals seen in the Towie ball, indicating that the peoples of Europe interacted among themselves and passed on their ideas to one another.

Modeling Method

Anderson-Whymark created the virtual models using photogrammetry, a process that involves taking 150 to 200 pictures of the stone balls to build an extremely detailed, high-resolution model.

The process also unveiled previously hidden details about the stone balls, such as finely carved patterns that are hard to see with the naked eye. The stone ball X.AS 90, for instance, showed faint traces of concentric circles under the photogram's lens, even though it has been sitting inside the museum for a hundred years and observed by dozens of pairs of eyes.

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