Tag Archives: archaeology

Scottish Petrospheres

In stark contrast to the previous article in which claims are made to know crescents more intimately than we might first imagine, it is worth mentioning the discovery of rare objects of ornament that have no clear explanation at all.

Exclusively in Scotland, with uncertain dating but believed to be over 2,000 years old,  exquisite little hand held works of art have been found in the form of unusual, ornamented stone spheres.  The very best of them, the Towie Ball, is meticulously engraved with some of the earliest known examples of an undeveloped predecessor to the Celtic spiral style that would ultimately develop in the region.

Towie Ball 10th C. BCE

Towie Ball, Aberdeenshire, 10th C. BCE, may be 3,000 years old.

Beyond the skill and care placed in these small, hand-held objects from a people who left little but piles of stones, the occasional rock carving, and circles of standing stones, what is striking about the petrospheres is their curious variety.  They have been compared to cells, atoms, and other things, but the real coup is how peculiarly unique they are in the scheme of world art.  Nothing quite matches these, making them an apparently completely regional innovation.



No two it would seem are alike, and so this must be one of the defining features of these unique objects.  It is said that for every one petrosphere in a museum, there are a hundred hidden away in private family collections, suggesting a tradition of secretly passing on these relics of the Scot’s pre-historic peoples.  The Scots are well known for preserving aspects of the language and customs of a once expansive culture.


Many speculations have been made as to their use, from cooking stones to weapons, but scientists have found these speculations to be without evidence.  Due to the unique character of them, it is fair to say that they were made by inventive, creative people with manual skill.  And in their variation, we can guess that the makers sought to individualize them.  What can be said, from a maker’s perspective, is that with the exception of the engraving done on the most exceptional, the balls all have in common the fact that they are made by filing.

Ashmolean Museum, discovered 1927

Ashmolean Museum, discovered in 1927

We have observed in surviving shamanic cultures around the world today that one of the major roles of a witch, magician or healer, and a central part of material trade for them, is the production of amulets.

Amulet objects are visually crafted to possess unique, curious appeal, and this is the physical aspect that will be blended with reverence for the individual’s perceived power, with just as much invested presence as the physical and implied symbolic references the object might include. It follows that forms of amulet could possibly gain in popularity for similar reasons – because of the unique beauty of interest of the object, or because the place, or person is particularly admired, and another possibility is inherent, that the object is believed to be associated with some great or miraculous event.  Much the way fans today seek to dress like their pop star idols, amulets are arguably more a matter of fashion than tradition or origination.  In this way they are more like art objects than artifacts of cultural concreteness.


It is enjoyable to find something that has no clear explanation at all.  The balls have no direct relation to anything left in stone carvings, the only record of the people who made these.  The scientists can only go so far as to call them “status objects”.  They have never been found in burials, which anthropologists suggest made them objects that did not belong to individuals.  Much later than the dates of any of these spheres, we have examples among the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish peoples the practice of wearing smooth rock crystal spheres as amulets.  These have been found in graves, and are known to have been worn by women, suspended from the belt on a chatelaine.  Though the time and distance does not draw any direct correlation, these are examples of how a spherical amulet might be worn.

Anglo Saxon VII C. Crystal Sphere, Warminster

Frankish, VI C., Crystal Sphere, Cologne

For now, the mystery of the petrospheres remains intact, the subject of household whispers and amusement, something to enjoy for not having a clear reason to exist, and connecting our own modern ideas of creativity to the impulses of people in the distant past.

Pages with more detail from Joseph Anderson’s Scotland In Pagan TImes:

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The Treasure of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Burial Ground

This is a story about humility.   And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes.  I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information.  This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture.  Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.

Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem.  Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another.  It was unbelievable.   Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs.  I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.

Herbert Maryon Metalwork & Enamelling


In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice.  Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling.  I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels.  I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential.  Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral –  as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent

This wasn’t far from the truth.  Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered.  The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned.  One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth.  Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them.  Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith.  The gold work is expertly enameled  in a champleve manner.  In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.


Sword, signed "Scott"

This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing.  As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how.  Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work.  In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp.  It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own.  Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer.  Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools.  And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.

Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches.  Barbarians?  Hardly.

The Great Buckle

Shoulder Clasp

 How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?


How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?