I was meant to go to Orkney today but a wise Neolithic archeologist persuaded me otherwise. I made the decision to venture North a couple of weeks ago after speaking to Ian Begg, who I came across in June when dipping my toe into the 26 Treasures research waters. Ian is a retired architect who just so happens to have a specific interest in the carved stone balls of Scotland. He suggested I write my piece on the Isle of Papa Westray, where you can find the oldest house in Northern Europe. But then I met Alison Sheridan and we decided that my time would be better spent in the libraries of the National Museum.
Short for time, Alison marched me down to the prehistoric underworld of the museum where the Towie Ball and I were finally introduced. I was surprised by the rush of excitement that thundered through my caffeine riddled veins when I laid my eyes upon it. “Oh my god, it’s tiny!” In my mind, this 3000 year-old carved stone ball was like those big bad spheres from World’s Strongest Man. It is not. It’s a wee thing that could easily fit in the palm of your hand, if only I could touch it. The hairs stood on end, from my ankles to my ears, as I found myself in the presence of greatness.
The Towie Ball is classified as a ‘Prestige Object’ and I’m starting to feel quite smug that my treasure is so very prestige. Intricate spirals and concentric circles have been painstakingly etched into the glacial Aberdeenshire stone. It sits serene next to a vicious spiked stone ball and what looks like an antiquated grenade. They are surrounded by Jadeite axes and maceheads carved from flint and antlers. But this is no weapon.
The spirals are the key to unlocking the secret of the enigmatic Towie Stone, whose “use is wholly unknown”. The pattern can be found on the kerbs of the passage tombs in Newgrange, Ireland. They appear on the lintels of ceremonial monuments in Orkney. And you can find them on maceheads discovered in Norfolk. The spiral is thought to be a symbol of power and seems to be associated with life, death and the supernatural. If you had one of these in your back pocket, you were probably a pretty big deal back in the day.
Before I came to Edinburgh to meet Alison and The Towie Stone I thought I might apply the Structuralist school of thought to my object. Intent on understanding its use and purpose, many an enthusiast and archeologist has sought to impose their reading upon it. These Neolithic mysteries are blank texts that are open to interpretation. A signifier with no signified. But all of this seems pretty insignificant and poncy when you learn that a carved stone ball was found in the grave of a Viking. So I think I’ll dance inside spirals of power instead.