Neolithic Maceheads in Orkney

Introduction

Image showing pestle maceheads from Stromness Museum's collection
Pestle maceheads from the collection at Stromness Museum. © Orkney Stone Tools

Orkney is famous for its well-preserved Neolithic archaeology.

 

The Neolithic is also known as the New Stone Age (3800 – 2400 BC).  There are many stone artefacts that survive from this period. Among the most stunning are highly polished stone maceheads.

 

The Neolithic was characterised by changed worldviews, episodes of monument building, and the emergence of agriculture. Generally speaking, the manufacturing of maceheads was a relatively lengthy process, which required skilled individuals. A lot of work has gone into producing these Neolithic objects. Stromness Museum has two exceptionally well-preserved examples, which embody many of the unique characteristics of Orcadian maceheads.  

 

Material and Manufacture

Maceheads were usually made out of stone, however, prehistoric communities also used antlers as raw material in some cases. These beautifully worked artefacts would have had wooden hafts attached to them, making these objects complete. Choosing the right type of stone for the manufacturing process was an important step. The stone had to be durable, polishable, and aesthetically pleasing. In fact, the raw material itself was so significant that Orcadian communities would often import rare or unique-looking stones from other areas specifically for this purpose. 

 

Lewisian Gneiss pestle macehead
Fig 2. Lewisian Gneiss pestle macehead found at Dounby Farm. © Orkney Stone Tools

Once they chose the raw material, the manufacturing process could begin. They started by polishing the stone, thereby revealing the patterns and colours. Then, the shaping of the object would take place. Creating the perforation in the middle for the haft would follow. The next step in the process was adding the finishing touches and making sure that no irregular surface remained unworked. Lastly, in order to give them the desired surface finish, polishing would occur again. During the Neolithic, the transformation of the raw material into an object was becoming increasingly important. The changing textures, colours and patterns were given significance.

 

Maceheads in Stromness Museum 

 

Lewisian Gneiss pestle macehead shown from different angles
Fig 3. Lewisian Gneiss pestle macehead shown from different angles. © Orkney Stone Tools

The Lewisian Gneiss pestle macehead from Stromness Museum’s collection (Figures 2 and 3), for instance, has a high surface polish, giving it a glossy/shiny finish. Going the extra mile in the manufacturing process was not done for practical reasons, but for achieving a desired texture and overall look. This pestle macehead (Collection ID A187), which was found in a cist along with a crouched human burial at Stenness in Orkney, was discovered in 1839. It was made of Lewisian Gneiss (stone type), which means that it was sourced outside of Orkney, and then imported. There is some uncertainty around the date of this macehead as the burial cist it was discovered in has not been dated. It is possible that this artefact is somewhat later in date, perhaps from the Later Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age. It is worth mentioning that this artefact was one the earliest donations made to Stromness Museum. This particular macehead is smaller than others from this region, which might suggest that even though the stone was not quite the right size for the job, its visual qualities were simply too special not to make use of it.

 

 

Pestle macehead
Fig 4. Pestle macehead found at Bay of Stove, Sanday, Orkney. © Orkney Stone Tools

The other pestle macehead from the museum’s collection (Collection ID A287) (Figure 4) was found at Bay of Stove in Orkney. The macehead was in close proximity to a Later Neolithic settlement site, which had been exposed by coastal erosion. Researchers were unable to precisely identify the stone type used for the manufacture of this object, although, it is more than likely that it was imported. Both maceheads from the museum’s collection show exquisite craftsmanship and attention to detail. In Orkney, many of the maceheads were intentionally broken before disposal (see Figure 5). In fact, most of the Orcadian maceheads that are associated with Later Neolithic sites were broken when deposited. This macehead (A287) is an exception as it is intact. The intentional breakage of many of these objects has prompted archaeologists to conclude that the decision to deliberately destroy such prestige items must have had social and/or ritual indications.  

 

 

Mecehead fragment
Fig 5. Macehead fragment found at Harray Hills, Harray, Orkney. © Orkney Stone Tools

The choice of raw materials, the timely manufacturing process, and the way people disposed of these objects (on numerous occasions) seem to point towards ritual or ceremonial usage. The main assumed function of maceheads was as high- status objects, possibly symbolising power and wealth. This is not to say that we can rule out a more practical (and perhaps simultaneously occurring) usage. Many of the Orcadian examples show signs of use-wear on their surfaces. For instance, both examples from Stromness Museum’s collection show evidence of impact damage from physical use. 

 

 

pestle maceheads
Pestle maceheads from the collection at Stromness Museum. © Orkney Stone Tools

Maceheads are intriguing objects with a lot of potential for future research. The time and effort that have gone into the manufacturing process certainly make them special. Their function, however, is not so easy to pinpoint. Although researchers have explored the ceremonial usage of these objects in detail, the wear-patterns showing on a number of maceheads need to be taken into consideration as well.

 

The distribution of maceheads in Scotland is uneven. Certain areas have bigger clusters associated with them than others. Shetland has a notable collection, but maceheads are also present in lower numbers across the country. The majority of Scottish maceheads, however, have been found in Orkney. This is why it is so important to study Orcadian examples in an attempt to uncover the regional significance they may have had during the Neolithic.

 

Further Information

For further information on maceheads visit 
https://www.orkneystonetools.org.uk/themes/artefacts/maceheads

 

The two pestle maceheads featured in this online exhibition are on loan to the Orkney Museum.

 

Click on the exhibition objects below to see more images of the maceheads and to view a sketchfab model.

About this exhibition

This online exhibition was researched and curated by Petra Kisgergely, a third-year archaeology student at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness:

 

Virtual placement student Petra Kisgergely

 

This online exhibition was part of my university placement at Stromness Museum. I particularly enjoy learning about the prehistoric societies of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Within the broader discipline of archaeology, I am very interested in social archaeology, which looks at cultural changes, social dynamics and social structures of past societies. My future plans include gaining a postgraduate degree and starting a career within the heritage sector. Having completed my virtual placement at Stromness Museum, I feel reassured about my future ambitions.     

You can read more about Petra's experience as a virtual placement student on our blog.

I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Siobhan Cooke for her guidance, feedback and hard work during the course of this project. 

I would also like to thank Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark for his feedback, and the ‘Orkney Stone Tools’ Project for allowing me to include their images in this exhibition. 

I am grateful to Dr Scott Timpany, from the University of the Highlands and Islands, for organising my placement. I am equally thankful to Stromness Museum for providing me with such a wonderful opportunity to gain some work experience.  

Exhibition objects