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May 24, 2020

Towie Ball

Towie 1

From the Times of London:

Prehistoric stone spheres that have been unearthed in Scotland were an early form of "business card" crafted by stonemasons as testament to their skill, according to an amateur historian.

Archaeologists have puzzled over the reason for elaborate carvings found on hundreds of small, sphere-shaped stones that date back 5,000 years to the Neolithic period.

They are typically about three inches in diameter.

Most have been unearthed in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

One of the finest examples is the Towie Ball (top), weighing just over 500 grams [1.1 pounds].

It has four discs over its surface.

Three of those are intricately carved while the fourth is blank.

Various possibilities have been put forth to explain the function of these meticulously crafted spheres: as measures of weight, for throwing contests, or, attached to a stick, for use as a weapon.

A further theory claims that there may have been a ceremonial purpose: whoever held the stone had the right to speak.

Jeff Nisbet, a Scottish graphic designer, is convinced they were used by early stone workers to show off their handiwork.

Nisbet, a former art director of Billboard magazine who lives in New Jersey, has presented his theory to the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework.

He said that it was a brass and iron poker with a decorative handle, used by his family for their fire in Scotland, that stoked his imagination.

Nisbet's father had made the poker as an apprentice piece while training as a British Railways fitter.

In the age of steam, fitters made parts for huge locomotives, and this poker was a test of his skill.

"My father's poker verified his ability to work metals and I believe that the carved stone balls of Scotland verified a mason's ability to work stone," Nisbet said.

He also believes he can explain why hundreds of rocks across Scotland bear strange "cup and ring" markings.

It has been speculated that the markings were religious symbols for the dead journeying into the next life, or used in religious or pagan ceremonies.

Others claim they were an astrological guide for planting and harvesting.

The etchings are often incomplete, which, Nisbet suggest, is because they are prehistoric examples of stonemason school lessons.

He argues that pupils would make mistakes during first attempts at carving and learn from errors — a practice that endures to this day.

"These mistakes, once brought to the attention of the class, would become necessary and valuable parts of the lesson plan," he said. "Practice made perfect."

One of the best known examples of cup and ring markings is on the 5,000-year-old Cochno stone (below)


in Auchnacraig park,


West Dunbartonshire.


It features about 90 carved indentations.

At Achnabreck, near Lochgilphead in Argyll and Bute, some of the largest and most complex rock carvings in Scotland (below)


include circular hollows, or cup marks, surrounded by up to 12 rings, spanning more than a meter at their widest point.

"Unlike the products of early butchery and weaving which would have decayed, the ancient efforts of aspiring stoneworkers survive," said Nisbet.

"I believe the cup and ring markings offer early evidence of teaching practice."

Gavin MacGregor, a prehistorian with Northlight Heritage in Glasgow, said: "When dealing with prehistory, how do we know what people were doing or thinking? But there is space for exploring possibilities and public dialogue."

May 24, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


Thanks very much for posting this. My research papers on which this article was based can be read at the following link ... https://jeffnisbet.academia.edu/research

Posted by: Jeff Nisbet | May 24, 2020 6:46:19 PM

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