Friday, September 2, 2016

Neolithic Scottish Bowls? (Nisbet, 2014)

There are unusual Carved Stone Balls found in the Late Neolithic of Scotland.  They are almost perfectly uniform in size, about the size of an American baseball or croquet ball.

I'll expand from a previous comment to Charles about Neolithic sports and revisit a theory by Nisbet, 2014 about the purpose of stone balls first proposed by Dorothy Marshall (1976) that these balls were possibly from an ancient sport.  I suspect that they could have been more specifically, "boules" and that their irregularity is intended for a biased ball game such as Scottish bowls.  Let's do some reverse engineering...

Nisbet, 2014
As you can see, the balls (or bowls) are nearly uniform in size and, as noted many times before, they fit perfectly in the human hand.  Therefore we can assume that they are more appropriate in the hand, not on a rope, stick or in a caldron.

They have also different denominations of knobs and rings in an inventory that seems to reveal a structure.  In the game of bowls, the bowl is rolled along a particular trajectory and at the end of the roll takes an erratic course when nearing the jackball.  The selection of the bowl and how the bowl is release is part of a strategy to get to the jackball.

Although there are several versions of boules games in Europe, such as Bocce Ball, the modern professional games of biased Lawn Bowls was refined in modern Scotland, rather conveniently. [more]

Stone Balls from Hunterian Museum (cosmic via Megalithic Portal)
Another interesting fact is that the Medieval bowls jacks may have been an irregular cone shape and it is noteworthy that of the 375 something Neolithic stone balls that about seven of them are cone or cylindrical shaped.

It'd be interesting to take an arm full of these items down to the green and see how they roll and stop.  Are any of them biased in a particular way?  Do some stop short and others go long?  Do some veer hard right?

Going back to the seeming structure of the 375 inventory, it could be that a Neolithic bowl set, however standardized, consisted of different divisions of knobs and biases for different uses, similar to a bag of golf clubs.  The bowler picks a 3, then a 7, then 9, so forth.

"The Carved Stone Balls of Scotland:  Who made them, and why?"
Jeff Nisbet (2014)  Scottish Heritage [Link]

See his Academia link in the comments section as well.

See also : Malagabay Blog

David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Playing Bowls at an Inn


  1. Sporting good idea. No connection to the Roman army dodecahedron thingy, I guess.

    1. It could be related somehow but it doesn't have to be a direct relationship

    2. I’ve forgotten my password, so am replying as “anonymous.” I talk about the Dodecahedron on page 3 of my research paper, linked in the comments section. Thanks for the interest. Best, Jeff.

  2. The bowling explanation sounds good to me.

    However I would consider (as a complementary aspect of the theory) that the ones with marked prominences, which would make the rolling of the ball or bowl, very difficult, may have been covered in wool (that softens and homogenizes the shape) and leather (outside cover), much as modern Basque handballs are but less thickly so. Some of the rock designs actually would seem to imitate leather-covered ball designs (two "double tongue" strips curved on the surface, covering all of it).

    The difference would be that the Basque handball's core (also rock-hard, like a large marble, originally a wooden piece, now of hard rubber) is covered in a very thick layer of wool because it's hit by the hand in impact (what can cause lesions) and these would only be covered by a thinner wooden layer, enough to give them round or near-round shape but nothing else, as you don't hit them but just throw them.

    1. Maybe all them would have a wool+leather cover (you don't need protrusions to cover them with wool, just patience and good hand), although it's hard to imagine admittedly that the most decorated ones would be covered at all. So maybe I'm wrong or maybe they had different purposes in different variants of the game or different specific roles of the ball (we see in the video that there are two types of balls, the white one playing a different role).

    2. That's very interesting. So basically you see them as possibly cores. That might also mask their weight or rolling qualities if they belonged to a set originally.
      These types of games seem to very common across Europe at an early time. I don't know if this is the case here, but I imagine Neolithic country life was not so much different than today

    3. Or more within the last hundred years or so


    Could the Concho Stone have been a playing surface for these Neolithic stone balls?

  4. Thanks for the mention. My theory can be downloaded here ...

    1. Jeff, it is a fascinating theory, far and away makes the most sense of any theory about these stones balls out there. Thanks for commenting!