The Many Possible Uses For Scotland's Knobbly Orbs - Atlas Obscura
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The Many Possible Uses For Scotland’s Knobbly Orbs

We asked for your thoughts on the function of these mysterious relics, and boy did you deliver.

The orb's use is unknown but the guesses are aplenty.
The orb’s use is unknown but the guesses are aplenty. Johnbod / CC BY-SA 3.0

Like Stonehenge, the knobbly orbs of Scotland, England, and Ireland conjure much speculation among theorists. We only know the 5,000-year-old stone artifacts date back to the Neolithic era, are approximately 2.75 inches to 4.5 inches in diameter, and engraved with cryptic geometric designs. There over 400 of them collected in such places as the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford and the National Museum of Scotland.

Besides that, the orbs are shrouded in mystery. Were they dice, résumés, or lethal bludgeons? It’s likely we’ll never know, but we might as well give it the old college try and theorize away.

We asked Atlas Obscura readers to submit their best guesses on what they thought the knobbly were used for, if at all. From Serbia to South Africa to Pakistan, we received over 650 responses from every continent except Antarctica. We couldn’t list them all, but here are a few of our favorites:

Fidget Spinners

Haven’t you people taught middle-schoolers? These are fidget balls that “help” you focus! —Marc Hamlin from Rhode Island, U.S.

Perhaps, they could be used for Komboloi, or worry beads? —Jack R. Rigdon from Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.

Clearly, they are an early form of fidget toys. What better way for an ancient Pict to pass the time between getting chased by dangerous animals and fending off starvation and disease? —Abby from Seattle, Washington, U.S.

Massages

They appear to be similar to modern day massage balls. They were rolled against the back or other muscle areas using the palm or perhaps a trencher-like slotted wooden holder. Yusef from Malaysia

These balls would be very useful for massages! Quite seriously, if one examines the latest foam rollers for example, they have knobbly bits, which are excellent for releasing trapped tension in muscles. —Ben Davies from Oxford, United Kingdom

Fortune Telling

Possibly oracles used them as a “right to speak” tool.—Kim from Wiltshire, United Kingdom

These were part of shamans’ tool kits, passed down through generations of masters and apprentices. Shamans used the orbs for mystical healing and foretelling the future.—Don Martin from Columbia, Maryland, U.S.

Prognosticating devices, perhaps?
Prognosticating devices, perhaps? Courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Games

Found in Scotland? Golf balls, of course. —Bonnie from Massachusetts, U.S.

They were used as Boule or Varpa orbs. Games like Boule and Varpa have been around for a very long time.—Rolf from Stockholm, Sweden

They were used as individual game pieces in a pick up game. I used to play a similar game with ox bones as pieces.—Laura Lucas from Calitzdorp, South Africa

I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school. The first thing I thought of when I saw them was, “Oh look, ancient multi-sided gamer dice! —Sera Hartman from Tulalip, Washington, U.S.

They were used in competitions to determine the best or longest hand-projectiles someone could hurl. —Maxwell Holland from Thailand

In Malta, there is a game called bocci. It is based on getting the closest to the mark and knocking your opponent. My guess is these are for some sort of game. —Chris Sacco from Malta

Math

This idea is influenced by the Japanese researcher Yasushi Kajikawa, but this stone is neither a weapon nor a decoration, it must be a trace of pure geometric thinking. —Narie Wakamatsu from Japan

They were hand held calculators, but not necessarily a mathematical calculator. A technician would use it for mental mapping. —Guy Taylor from Tucson, Arizona, U.S.

To learn spatial, geometric designs such as spheres and polyhedrons. —Javier Soto from Avila, Spain

Weights

They were line fishing weights. The knobs ensured that the line could be securely tied to the weight. Easy peasy. —Toby Turander from Norway

These were used as paperweights for papyrus. —Swatilekha Bhattacherjee from India

They were used as weights to tie down individual strings that served as a formal entryway partition or barrier curtain. —Jack Frydenlund from Santa Rosa, California, U.S.

To me, these look like weights used in the weaving process. The knobs would secure yarns in place as they were being woven. —Laura Peterson from Old Town, Florida, U.S.

Cooking

They were heated stones dropped into the liquid in order to cook stews or meals.—Judith Berkowitz from San Francisco, California, U.S.

They were used for kneading, possibly for cooking and grinding grain into a fine flour. —Leeann Hamilton from Meath, Ireland

Record Keeping

Perhaps they are record-keeping objects associated with pacts, religious offerings, or taxes. —Rebecca Migdal from Easton, Pennsylvania, U.S.

They are story or record keepers. One may represent a treaty or marriage contract, another shows a family history, another is a storyteller’s illustration for their listeners, and perhaps another provides geographic information. —Colin Mulholland from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

According to researcher Dr. Lynne Kelly, they served as memory aids to recall information for oral transmission in preliterate societies. —Julie Mitchell from Adelaide, Australia

Currency

To me these knobby orbs are coins of different denominations. —Wilayat K. Bhatty from Lahore, Pakistan

They’re currency, but this might reflect more of the society I live in than that of ancient times. —Svenna from Germany

Weapons

They started out as simple weapons, serving as weight that could be swung around the head on a rope to strike an animal. —Dave Henderson from Wellington, New Zealand

They were personalized throwing balls that could be used as a weapon. —Brian Robert Pipe from Dubai, UAE

They look like a netsuke, sewn or bound on belts and even serving as bolo-style weapons if the need arose. —Joan Traffas from Fayetteville, Arkansas, U.S.

Stories

They could be visual aids for storytelling. Pictures carved into the orbs may have accompanied different stories or parts of a story. —E.J. Hagadorn from Connecticut, U.S.

Perhaps, held up in firelight, they casted shadows that illustrated or evoked storytelling. The incised marks identified the type of story that would be told. —Dulcy Freeman

They were used to tell life stories that were passed down within the family. Each member would have their own. —Marsha Wood from Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.

Navigation

They were maps. Orbs with plainer patterns and more knobs showed a map covering a broad area of land. Orbs with intricate patterns and fewer knobs represented a detailed map of one specific area. —Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel from Ciudad de México, México

The patterns showed surrounding landscapes and locations visually, and the orbs were used so people could orient themselves when traveling. —Jan Olausson from Sweden

Stamping

They were used for stamping a soft material. For example, rolling the orbs over a sheet of dough before baking to make nice patterns on flatbreads or scones. —Alix from France

They’re printing blocks for leather, fabric, or body adornment. All you would do is dip them in dye, heat, and roll them on as substrate. —Steve Ogden from Oakland, California, U.S.

They acted like stamps or temporary tattoos. You could cover one side or multiple sides in ink, roll them along a person’s body or other surface, and instantly it’s art! —Nick from Michigan, U.S.

Voting

They were voting stones. Each stone was unique and identified a voter in public or secret balloting. They may have also been used in ritual stoning. —Eugene from Illinois, U.S.

Portfolio Work

One such explanation from scholar Dr. Andrew Meirion Jones from University of Southampton is that they represent practice pieces. Perhaps they were worked on (and then erased and redecorated) by novice stoneworkers in order to hone their skills–similar to Jeff Nisbet’s resume portfolio theory. —Misha from London, United Kingdom

Music and Art

Art, for art’s sake. They were beautiful intricate tokens made for aesthetic and sensory enjoyment. —Charlotte High from Warminster, Wiltshire, United Kingdom

These could be the very first zentangles. —Daisey Traynham from Vietnam

They were used for music. When rolled around on wood or rock surfaces, they would make different noises. —Madelyn Patlan from Texas, U.S.

Identification

I believe that the stones represented a person’s lineage and family history, much like a family crest. —Rachel Hug from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.

They depict spiritual family trees to aid in ancestor veneration. Each knob represents a person or branch of the family tree and the designs show the spiritual connections among them. —Rick from Washington D.C., U.S

Possibly they were a way to identify tribes and positions in a tribe while traveling. —Tim from U.S.

Keys

The orbs were keys to unlock the past, present, and future. —Robin from Vancouver, Washington, U.S.

Some responses have been edited for clarity and readability.