Five mysterious ancient artifacts that still puzzle archaeologists

This article originally appeared on The conversation.

Archaeologists are often described as “astonished” or “baffled'through their discoveries. But in reality, specialists know well what most historical objects were made for. But there are a few exceptions to this rule.

The following list is a selection of intriguing mysterious objects. They are a good example of why excavating the past remains a great fascination for professionals and the public alike.

1. Neolithic stone balls

The elaborately carved stone balls found mainly in Scotland and dating from the later Neolithic period (c. 3200-2500 BC) are one such mystery.

More than 425 balls have been found. They are generally the size of a cricket ball and made from a wide variety of stones. Their surfaces are sculpted, sometimes in raised circular disks and sometimes with deep incisions defining knobs and lobes in high relief. Decoration takes the form of spirals or concentric shapes, echoing those found on pottery and monumental stones of the period.

Three Scottish examples, in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. Credit: Johnbod/Wiki Commons, CC BY-SA

Some have been found in burials, others in settlements. They are rarely, if ever, identical and most are found alone, so they do not appear to be part of a set. Some appear to have been treated severely during their lifetime.

The original use of these stone balls has been a source of much debate, back to them earliest discovery in the 19th century. Many were accidental finds or circulated in art collections with little provenance, and have rarely been found in an archaeological context.

Were they rockets for deterring predators and vermin? Weapons of war? Toys? Or maybe measuring weights, household jewelry, mnemonics, ball bearings to move megaliths or holders for yarn? The answer still eludes us.

2. Roman dodecahedron

These intriguing objects have recently made headlines, with a new discovery Norton Disney asked in Lincolnshire a lot of discussion regarding their function.

Pentagon dodecaeder in brons 150 tot 400 NC vindplaats Tongeren Leopoldwal 1939 collectie Gallo Romeins Museum Tongeren 4002
Roman bronze dodecahedron found in Tongeren. Credit: Gallo-Roman Museum

Dodecahedrons date back to Roman times in Britain (AD 43-410). About 130 have been found in the northwestern provinces of the former Roman Empire, each carefully crafted from a copper alloy.

There are no known depictions of these objects in ancient art or literature. They do not conform to a standard size and rarely show signs of use that would indicate their purpose. Although armchair experts will tell you their grandmother used to have one knitted glovesarchaeologists are not yet sure about its intended use.

3. Neolithic chalk drums

In 1889, three carved chalk cylinders were discovered in a child's grave in Folkton, North Yorkshire. The Folkton chalk drums have geometric decorations and eyes, noses and eyebrows. A fourth, undecorated drum was found Lavant in West Sussex in 1993. Another very graceful example was excavated at Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire in 2015.

The Burton Agnes drum was buried with a chalk ball, a bone pin and the remains of three children – one of whom was dated to BC3005-2890.

Folkton Drums
The Folkton drums on display in the British Museum. Credit: Jononmac46/Wiki Commons, CC BY-SA

The motifs on the drums are part of an aesthetic tradition that can also be found on the Neolithic stone balls. Despite their name, chalk drums are unlikely to have been played as a musical instrument and do not show wear associated with percussion use.

Some researchers have connected their perimeter to a standardized measure of length known as the “long foot”. Some think they were references in stone to perishable containers such as wooden pots or lidded baskets. Others have tried to link the geometric markings to astronomical observations. But their presence in the graves of carefully buried children seems to suggest a more sensitive explanation.

4. Bronze Age “washers”.

The Bronze Age was a time of exceptional gold working. Highly decorative personal jewelry was made from gold leaf and wire. These small penannular (open) rings date from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000-800 BC) and have been found in Ireland, Britain and parts of France.

Often excavated matching pairsthey can be plain or have delicate, geometric engravings.

Bronze Age penannular ring FindID 796973
A retaining ring found in Rutland, Great Britain. Credit: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, CC BY-SA

Recent interpretations have suggested that it was nose rings, earrings or… hair decorations. None of these explanations are very satisfactory, as several elements of their design would make wearing the rings difficult or uncomfortable.

What we need is context – like the recent discoveries on Boncuklu Tarla, in Turkeyfrom burials with facial jewelry found near skulls.

5. Romano-British cosmetic grinders

Cosmetic grinders are small sets of copper alloys, made in two parts. One half is the 'mortar' (a long and curved fluted container) and the other half is the 'pestle' (rod-shaped and pointed, or curved into a 'toggle' shape). They often have loops for hanging and connectors in the shapes of people or animals.

Waterfowl and cattle are common decorative motifs that also appear on other Romano-British containers such as cups and buckets. Phallic symbolism on some sets has led to an association with fertility.

Cosmetic sets are quintessentially British and rarely found in mainland Europe. They date from the late Iron Age to the early Roman period (c. 100-200 AD) and are well distributed across the landscape.

775912001
A cosmetic mill found in Hockwold, Norfolk. Credit: The trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC

Analysis of use wear revealed that these objects were rubbed together with a lateral grinding action. They may have been replaced by the flat marble palettes used throughout the Roman Empire, although these worked in a fundamentally different way, using a metal scoop or stone tool to mix ingredients together in a circular motion.

The mystery here is not the function, but what substance was prepared. Suggestions include medicines, aphrodisiacs, cosmetics and narcotics. The contents of a mortar have never been successfully analyzed. This is an occasion where amateur finders can be of great help to archaeologists, by resisting the urge to clean cosmetic mortars and instead bringing them forward for examination.

Disclosure: Natasha Harlow has previously received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Related Posts

Nvidia's 'Nemotron-4 340B' model redefines synthetic data generation and competes with GPT-4

It's time to celebrate the incredible women leading the way in AI! Nominate your inspirational leaders for VentureBeat's Women in AI Awards today by June 18. More information Nvidia has…

How to share your ETA in Google Maps or Apple Maps

When you travel from point A to point B, there may be someone waiting for you on the other side, whether it's a friend, family member, co-worker, date, or someone…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Missed

New research approach: investigating the mouthfeel of food with a microscope

  • June 15, 2024
New research approach: investigating the mouthfeel of food with a microscope

Salesforce (CRM) Q1 2025 Earnings Report

  • June 15, 2024
Salesforce (CRM) Q1 2025 Earnings Report

Quantum entanglement measures the rotation of the Earth

  • June 15, 2024
Quantum entanglement measures the rotation of the Earth

DOJ Destroys GOP Conspiracy That Controlled New York Trial

  • June 15, 2024
DOJ Destroys GOP Conspiracy That Controlled New York Trial

Nvidia's 'Nemotron-4 340B' model redefines synthetic data generation and competes with GPT-4

  • June 15, 2024
Nvidia's 'Nemotron-4 340B' model redefines synthetic data generation and competes with GPT-4

China needs bond market reforms to rein in rising debt, S&P Global says

  • June 15, 2024
China needs bond market reforms to rein in rising debt, S&P Global says

The tasty flavors of chocolate can pose a risk in other desserts

  • June 15, 2024
The tasty flavors of chocolate can pose a risk in other desserts

Where to watch Italy vs. Watch Albania: Euro 2024 live stream online, prediction, odds, how to watch, TV channel

  • June 15, 2024
Where to watch Italy vs.  Watch Albania: Euro 2024 live stream online, prediction, odds, how to watch, TV channel

You may owe the IRS money on Monday; skipping payment could cost you hundreds of dollars

  • June 15, 2024
You may owe the IRS money on Monday;  skipping payment could cost you hundreds of dollars

Trump celebrates his 78th birthday in West Palm Beach as Rubio makes a surprise appearance

  • June 15, 2024
Trump celebrates his 78th birthday in West Palm Beach as Rubio makes a surprise appearance

The 2024 election cycle offers hope for a 134-year global gender gap

  • June 15, 2024
The 2024 election cycle offers hope for a 134-year global gender gap