In the winter of 1850, a fierce storm hit the Orkney island archipelago of Scotland, causing massive amounts of devastation, particularly in the area of the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland Island, and when the storm passed it left behind swaths of damage and 200 people dead. Yet in addition to the tragedy and damage left in its wake, the ferocious storm had also uncovered a mystery that had been there under the earth for thousands of years. There, partially exposed by the raging storm atop a knoll called Skara Brae, was what appeared to be a previously unknown ancient Neolithic village, which would uncover more mysteries as it was further exposed, and unearth ancient enigmas that have never really been explained.
The first attempts to uncover more of the apparent buried village were amateurish affairs carried out by locals, which they conducted until 1868 before quitting after having unearthed four ancient houses. The site would then sit abandoned for decades, in the meantime being set upon by looters and hit with yet another storm, before it finally came to the attention of the University of Edinburgh’s Professor V. Gordon Childe and was properly investigated in 1917. When real archeologists got to work, it was found that the site was likely inhabited from between around 3180 BC to about 2500 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, and was composed of a total of ten clustered houses tucked down in earthen dams and mounds, meant to help support the walls and provide insulation. These houses were constructed of flagstone and featured stone hearths, beds, and various stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes, and there was even an indoor sewer system or toilet in each home, with small antechambers equipped with drains that carried waste to the sea and would have been very advanced for the time. This was all incredibly well preserved and complete.
This elaborate design was one of the first mysteries of Skara Brae, and another was that it seems that the settlement was suddenly and inexplicably abandoned at some point. Whatever had made them leave caused the inhabitants to apparently flee in great haste, as there have been found many items that would have been considered very valuable at the time and even the remains of what are thought to have been meals laid out. Theories as to why these people so suddenly and decisively abandoned the village range from some sort of catastrophe like a storm, to some other calamity like disease, but no one really knows. Whatever the reason for this sudden exodus, the people who once lived here sure did leave a lot of stuff behind. Throughout this tiny village, which was estimated to have held perhaps 50 inhabitants at any one time, there were found fragments of stone, bone, and antler thought to be from some tool-making process, as well as numerous objects made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth, including awls, needles, knives, beads, jewelry, adzes, shovels, small bowls and plates. In addition to this there were found countless pieces of pottery, thousands of strange beads made from bone and sheep’s teeth, lumps of red ochre thought to have been used for body painting, and even one of the only pieces of preserved rope from a Neolithic site ever found. Much of this would have been seen as incredibly valuable at the time, but it is all just sitting around, with no real attempts to stow it, hide it, or take it along. Yet for as amazing as all of this is, by far the most mysterious objects found at Skara Brae are its inexplicable carved stone balls.
Scattered around the site are stone balls, about the size of a baseball and adorned with elaborate carvings of intricate patterns of spirals, circles and straight lines, with each one typically sporting between three to ten small knobs or bosses on the surface. It has long been considered a complete mystery as to how these ancient people could have created such elaborate inscriptions and carvings with only stone tools to work with, but the bigger mystery is that no one really knows what they are for. When it comes to the mysterious stone balls of Skara Brae the theories are numerous. Ideas include that they were used as weights for fishing nets, or that they were primitive scales, standardized weights for Neolithic traders, tools for the use of making beads or a multi-tool of some sort, objects used for rituals, oracles or fortune telling devices, status symbols, rollers for the transport of the giant stones used in megalithic monuments, or even weapons. Hugo Anderson-Whymark, curator of National Museums Scotland, has said of this theory:
It is perhaps best to think of them as ceremonial or stylized weapons. Things that could inflict damage if you wanted to use them, and may in some circumstances have been used that way, but are more likely to be objects which represent the status or power of the individual that held them in that community. Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible. What’s interesting is that people really get their imaginations captured by them — they still hold a lot of secrets.
Another idea is that the balls could represent what are called “Platonic solids,” which were symmetrical polyhedrons first proposed by the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Plato to represent the classical elements of earth, water, air, fire and ether. If this theory is true it would be an amazing discovery, as it would mean that these Neolithic people understood these geometries and mathematics over a millennium before Plato first described it all. In an effort to come to some understanding of their mysterious purpose, scientists have created 3-D models of the balls and others like them found at other sites in Scotland, and while these have not provided any concrete answers one thing that was found is that the they seemed to have been worked and reworked or modified over several generations.
Similar balls have been found at other locations around Scotland, and indeed there have been around 500 of the objects found at various sites, with the Skara Brae examples being among the most famous, but all are equally enigmatic. No one really has a clue what they were for. They could have simply been left behind as a prank to mess with people in the future for all we know, and your guess is as good as anyone’s. The stone balls have baffled scientists for years, with no one any closer to a definitive answer. What happened to Skara Brae? What were these mysterious balls used for? Considering there is no written record for any of it we will probably never know, and your guess is as good as anyone else’s.