Models of Mind

Carved Stone Balls from the Islands of Scotland, 2012
Published by Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, ISBN 978-0-9535814-5-0

Visual Thinking: Carved Stone Balls in the Isles

Murdo MacDonald

Prehistoric people were as interested as we are in regularities of form in three-dimensional space. The carved stone balls of Neolithic Scotland are an amazing expression of that.
There are several hundred of these objects, usually about the size of a tennis ball but with complex surfaces, sometimes irregular but often attaining an extraordinarily balanced formal beauty, which can be contained within a cube, a pyramid or even a dodecahedron. The sophistication of form of these objects led the geometer Daud Sutton to note that they ‘are the earliest known examples of man made design with icosahedral symmetry’. This intriguing aspect of carved stone balls was explored in the 1970s in particular by Keith Critchlow who noted that among these objects were examples of all five of what we call the ‘Platonic’ solids. In 2003 the mathematicians Michael Atiyah and Paul Sutcliffe noted that ‘they are termed Platonic solids [but] there is convincing evidence that they were known to the Neolithic people of Scotland at least a thousand years before Plato …’.

The geometry of the arrangements of prehistoric standing stones is well known. It has been studied in depth by among others Alexander Thom and Aubrey Burl. One might have expected some obvious relationship between the mathematical subtleties of those slightly flattened circles and subtleties of proportion of carved stone balls. Similarly one might have expected clear links to the prehistoric carved rock surfaces of Scotland, England, Ireland and France. Like carved stone balls both standing stones and rock surfaces have been inspirational to artists, as Lucy Lippard pointed out in her book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any obvious link, no obvious overlay, to use Lippard’s word. These carved stone balls are clustered in Scotland and very few have been found elsewhere, so they are not present throughout the whole area of those other works in stone by prehistoric artists. In Scotland, many carved stone balls have been found in the North East, but they are found as far north as Orkney and as far west as the Hebrides. The focus in this exhibition is on examples from the Western and Northern Isles.

It is a strange conundrum of art and material culture that such an eminently portable art form seems hardly to have travelled except within the bounds of modern day Scotland. Perhaps these works really did reflect some highly protected encoding of pre-Pythagorean knowledge. Too important to bury with your relatives; too important to let out of your sight. In this exhibition Jim Pattison brings these intriguing carved objects back into our sight today by creating an innovative set of artworks based upon them. The quality of Pattison’s work reflects his thorough visual research into the objects themselves.

Further reading

Atiyah, M., & Sutcliffe, P., 2003, ‘Polyhedra in Physics, Chemistry and Geometry’ Milan Journal of Mathematics vol. 71, 33–58.
Critchlow, K., 1979, Time Stands Still, London: Gordon Fraser.
Critchlow, K., 2007, Time Stands Still, 2e, Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Lippard, L., 1983, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, Pantheon: New York.
Macdonald, M., 2000, Scottish Art, London: Thames & Hudson.
Macdonald, M., 2006, ‘A note on the diameters of carved stone balls.’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 136, 75.
Marshall, D. N., 1979, ‘Carved stone balls’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 108, 1976-77, 40-72.
Sutton, D., 2001, Platonic and Archimedean Solids, Presteigne: Wooden Books.
Thom, A., 1955, ‘A Statistical Examination of the Megalithic Sites in Britain’, J. of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 118, 275-95.
Thom, A., 1962, ‘The Megalithic Unit of Length’, J. of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 125, 243-251.
Thom, A., 1969, ‘The Geometry of Cup-and-Ring Marks’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, Vol. 16, 1968-69, 76-87.
Todd, T. N., 2006. ‘The aerodynamics of carved stone balls,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 61-74.

Models of Mind: Carved Stone Balls from the Islands of Scotland

Jim Pattison

Carved Stone Balls are among the earliest examples of art in Scotland.
In addition they are almost unique to Scotland. Over 425 examples are known and the majority were discovered between the Moray Firth and the River Tay, especially in Aberdeenshire. Most interest tends to focus on the comparatively few examples on show in major museums and particularly the Towie Ball in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The group studied here includes examples that are less widely seen; indeed a number of the objects included are rarely on display. These carved stone balls were found in Benbecula, Bute, Islay, Lewis, Orkney, Skye and South Uist. The objects are in five collections: Bernera Museum, Glasgow Museums Collection, The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway. The intention here is to cast new light on aspects of these Neolithic forms, and specifically to add to the awareness, knowledge and perception of specific examples found in the Islands of Scotland by the creation of new artwork that helps re-appraise these remarkable objects.

This group was chosen by personal reaction to these objects and for their variation in structure and form. They range from the highly complex example found at Skara Brae to the simple (but extravagantly and confidently inscribed!) example found at St Blanes in Bute. The St Blanes ball was also chosen for its connection with Dorothy Marshall, who stayed in Bute for much of her life. Dorothy Marshall produced the major reference and study, Carved Stone Balls, (Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 180, pp. 40-72, 1976/77). The carved stone ball from Bernera ?was found close to the Bernera Museum when Noreen and John Maciver were clearing ground at the back of their house. Murdo Macdonald’s great-grandfather was born in the same house.

Professor Macdonald’s recent research - Window to the West – Towards a redefinition of the visual within Gaelic Scotland (2005-2010), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is collaboration between the Visual Research Centre of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (University of Dundee) and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute). It is driven by three strands of activity: exploration of the visual in Gaelic language; rethinking of the history of visual art in the Highlands and Islands; and the making of contemporary art in a Highlands and Islands related context. The title of the project adapts the early lines of Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig ‘Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig / triomh 'm faca mi an Aird an Iar’: The window is nailed and boarded through which I saw the West’. In a sense the project is about unboarding Sorley MacLean’s window. The carved stone balls in this group were all discovered within the geographical focus of Murdo’s Window to the West research.

My own recent research has focussed on the translation, manipulation and visualisation of information and data using a range of digital and autographic processes. In Translations (2005-7), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, I produced a series of visual responses to the personal experiences of renal failure, dialysis and kidney transplantation. The translation of information from medical condition into medical terminology, the communication and subsequent processing and ordering of this information is complex, and moves through various forms. This project explored ways of translating these linguistic transfers and shifts of information into alternative visual conclusions. In the Wellcome Trust funded Connections (2007-9) in collaboration with neuroscientist Professor Brian Robertson, I created a series of two and three-dimensional visualisations of potassium ion channels important in brain function. The aims were to harness the use of new and existing technologies and approaches within both our subject areas, through discussion, collaboration, and awareness of historical context, in order to create alternative images that might be understood more easily.

Carved Stone Balls have a powerful sculptural presence and a tactile immediacy. They have from 3 to 160 protruding knobs on the surface, are fairly uniform in size (around 8 - 8.5cm in diameter), and they range from having no ornamentation to incorporating extensive and highly varied engravings. In this group, the examples from Benbecula and Lochboisdale have four knobs (or bosses), the examples found at Balallan, Bernera, Islay, and Laxdale have six, Holm has fifteen, Skye has twenty four and Skara Brae has fifty. The ball from St Blanes has two carved indentations. Further information about these carved stone balls can be found at By making new artworks in response to these Neolithic artworks, this project aims to highlight and reveal specific aspects of drawing, geometry, colour, texture and design within this group which may previously have been overlooked and denied to the viewer without access to see and examine these objects closely at first hand.

Much speculation has arisen as to the possible function or usage of these easily transportable objects. These proposals range from: throwing objects (or weapons), sink stones for nets, units of weight or measurement, signifiers of power; where the holder might have had the right to speak, and fortune telling devices. They have also been studied from a mathematical point of view, as they may be seen to have amongst them all the symmetrical forms of the five Platonic solids.

Within Anthropology one of the key areas of research into material culture during the late twentieth century has considered the idea that objects have a ‘social biography’. This approach was introduced in Igor Kopytoff's essay The Social Life of Things (1986), and then further elaborated by Nicholas Thomas in his Entangled Objects (1991). Using this biographical model, objects cannot be understood in terms of a single, unchanging identity (such as "the museum object"), but rather by tracing the succession of meanings attached to them as they move across space and time. Similarly, Gavin MacGregor, in Making sense of the past in the present: a sensory analysis of Carved Stone Balls. (1999) proposes that ‘Maintenance of the material form of an object readily allows us to believe that it continues to represent the same thing and therefore holds the same meanings. However, recent developments in archaeological thinking have highlighted that the meaning of the object is not stable and may change with context… The need to consider our sensory perception of artefacts is suggested as a means to deeper interpretation of their biography.’

Carved Stone Balls surely derive from sensory interaction with the world, and confirm the human need to touch, to hold, and to make in relation to natural forces and phenomena. If the earlier Neolithic artists who produced these sculptures are seen as intermediaries between inspiration and realisation, my role here might be seen to be as intermediary between this specific group and a visual re-interpretation.

In a Scottish context, many artists have used work from earlier periods as source material or starting points. The work of nineteenth-century painter and antiquarian James Drummond ARSA (1816-1877) is of key significance here. In Archaeological Scotica. Sculptured Monuments in Iona and the West Highlands, (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1881) Drummond recorded, interpreted and raised awareness of examples of ancient stone carvings, via drawings made on location which were translated into a series of published lithographs. This work drew attention to the West Highland School of Sculpture after a long period of neglect.
From a wider perspective, the process of producing visual responses to earlier art, naturally creates some kind of conjunction, or overlay, between the visions of two individual artists. These dialogues have been explored in exhibitions such as Encounters (National Gallery, London, 2000) and Art about Art (Whitney Museum, New York, 1978). In Encounters twenty-four of the world’s leading contemporary artists were invited to make new work from the National Gallery’s collection and the exhibition and accompanying publication presented and discussed ways in which the artist's ideas were shaped by the Gallery's collection, the meaning of the new work and its relationship to the artist's own previous work.

In this series I have focussed on visible and measurable characteristics and have produced five images relating to each of the ten objects. These sets of images shown side-by-side will provide the opportunity to study variations and similarities within these forms.

o Ten shaped paintings examine the colour, texture, form and shape of the objects.
o Ten round paintings emphasise the diverse profiles of the carved (and weathered) outside edges in relation to a circle.
o The ten wireframe drawings (produced as archival digital pigment prints) constructed from the Strata data reveal aspects of structure and geometry.
o Ten photographs record the sites close to where the objects were discovered.
o A series of ten screenprints show the shape of each object as seen from a single viewpoint as the object is turned.

The introduction of Strata Foto 3D software into a range of recording and visualising methods has allowed me to digitally map these objects in the collections where they are held without the logistical and cost considerations of 3D scanning. The objects are placed on a calibrated turntable and photographed as the object is rotated - the software then builds a 3D model from this information. The process of triangulation mapping used by Strata 3D seems an apt contemporary way of recording these 5000 year old geometric forms.

‘Art itself must have begun as nature – not as imitation of nature, nor as formalised representation of it, but simply as the perception of relationships between humans and the natural world. Visual art, even today, even at its most ephemeral or neutralised, is rooted in matter. Transformation of and communication through matter – the primitive connection with the substance of life, or prima material – is the rightful domain of all artists’.

Lucy Lippard – Overlay.