If you sail to the island of Sanday in the Orkney archipelago in northern Scotland, you’ll see the silhouettes of neighboring islands on the horizon. Upon arrival you’ll see white, sandy beaches that trail into rough, once-agricultural terrain, and experience its erratic weather—sun then fog then rain then clear skies all in the same day. Nestled there, on a shallow cliff, is a mound of earth and rocks: a prehistoric tomb dating to around 3500 B.C.
The tomb sits on a low-lying peninsula, where growing storms and agitated seas are eroding it away. So, in August and September 2021, a group of archaeologists made their way there, to Tresness, the site of that lone Neolithic tomb, with their sights set on excavation. The research team was anxious to study the tomb before it was lost; it contains a single chamber, presumably for someone important.
“What we discovered was an exceptionally well-preserved monument,” says Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator of prehistory at National Museums Scotland who co-led the research. There were no remains, but inside the monument were a couple rare finds: two polished stone balls, each about the size of a tennis ball.
The other leading archaeologist of the excavations, Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire, unearthed both of the orbs herself. With the first, she remembers pulling her trowel back and immediately noticing that something was different. “It was really exciting,” she says. “I said after the first one, ‘I’ll never find anything like that ever again in my career,’ and then I found another one. It’s very rare that you would find two such amazing objects, it was incredible.”
But these two balls aren’t exactly a unique find—they’re part of a widely distributed mystery left by the Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles. More than 500 stone balls like them have been discovered to date. For centuries, no one paid them much attention. Farmers or builders would randomly discover them in fields, and then either keep them or donate them without another thought. It wasn’t until archaeologist Sir Daniel Wilson published illustrations of the orbs in 1851 that people began to take notice. “Suddenly you saw, from 1850 onwards, lots of them coming out the woodwork,” says Anderson-Whymark. “There were about 100 known by the early 20th century.” But because of the way that many of them were found—without archaeological context—scholars didn’t know where most came from. That’s why Cummings was so floored by what she found. Discovering not one but two, in their original location in a tomb, is incredible—only a few have ever been found in their original context. Also, most of the 20 balls that have been found in the Orkney Islands are carved and etched with patterns and designs. These, on the other hand, were polished smooth.
Clearly, those Neolithic fellows played some game of the Boules family resembling Lawn Bowls, Raffe, Boules, Bocce, or Péntaque.