Focus on finds: maceheads

“[T]he care taken in manufacture suggests that these artefacts, like many others, often have a significance that went beyond utility”
Anderson-Whymark et al. Process, form and time, maceheads in an Orcadian context. (2017)
Nick carefully washing the macehead fragment from the outside of Structure Twenty-Seven.

Rhodochrosite cushion macehead fragment from outside Structure Twenty-Seven, found in 2018. (Sigurd Towrie)

The discovery of a macehead fragment at the Ness is always a special occasion, usually accompanied by a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” as the news travels across the trenches.

There is no doubt that the Ness maceheads are among the most beautiful artefacts found on site to date. Often using spectacular rock specifically selected for its visual impact, and sometimes clearly from outwith Orkney, it seems that appearance was an important element of macehead creation.

The work to shape, grind and polish the artefacts by hand, not to mention drill the perforations that probably once held a handle, is testament to the prehistoric stoneworkers’ skill and patience.

There’s a wealth of detailed information over at the excellent Working Stone website, so what follows is just a summary relating to the Ness, with links in the further reading section at the bottom of the post.

There are different types of maceheads, based primarily on the shape of the finished artefact:

Unfinished cushion macehead from Trench X in 2019. Note the unfinished perforation in the body. (Sigurd Towrie)

At the Ness of Brodgar we have the fragments of twelve confirmed maceheads, ten of which represent finished artefacts (seven cushion, two pestle and a Heatherbank-type) and two unfinished (a pestle and a cushion-type) [1].

A thirteenth possible example appears to be part of a cushion macehead. Where it differs, though, is that it was made from soft, silicified chalk [1].

Maceheads have not been found in Early Neolithic Orcadian contexts suggesting they were a later adoption – perhaps reflecting “influences from southern Britain and Ireland” [2]. But after their introduction, around 3200BC, the number found throughout the islands suggests they acquired a particular importance, significance or status [2].

Pestle macehead fragment, made from gneiss, from outside Structure One. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Pestle macehead fragment, made from gneiss, from outside Structure One. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

The Ness assemblage is the largest from a single site in Britain and Ireland, taking the total number of maceheads found in Orkney to 113. The majority of Orcadian examples were poorly documented antiquarian finds but at the Ness all but one came from stratified Late Neolithic deposits [1].

At the Ness two fragments appear to have been buried in midden outside Structure One, while in Structure Eight three were placed adjacent to the interior walls and piers [1].

The Structure One examples were highly polished and made from Lewisian gneiss – a material from north-western mainland Scotland and the Hebrides. Both were of the pestle style. The cushion-type, which are the most common at the Ness, were “typically manufactured of more simply banded or plain rocks.” [1]

Cushion macehead fragment from Trench J. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

With maceheads, we have those finished to a “workable standard” [1] and those that were highly polished and finished. The latter tend to be fabricated from more exotic materials.

This led to the suggestion that some maceheads – the particularly striking examples – were objects of symbolic importance, perhaps “part of the paraphernalia of status displays amongst Neolithic communities” [1] rather than functional tools.

While this may be the case for incredibly decorated examples, such as the beautifully carved macehead from Knowth, Ireland, the idea doesn’t always stand up to archaeological scrutiny.

Cushion macehead deposited in Structure Eight. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Cushion macehead deposited in Structure Eight. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Although the majority of excavated examples across Britain and Ireland show no evidence of ever being used, some clearly were. And given the visible wear, used often! [3] The damage noted on some confirms they were used as blunt weapons or hammers [1].

So can we say that the more spectacular maceheads had an entirely different function? Not necessarily.

As Hugo Anderson-Whymark points out:

“There is no reason to assume that the practical and symbolic qualities of an artefact were held apart so sharply in the Neolithic.” [1]
Fragment of a cushion macehead from Structure Eight. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Fragment of a cushion macehead from Structure Eight. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Whatever their purpose, all the confirmed (and finished) maceheads from the Ness were broken. Four of our examples show clear evidence that they were deliberately broken across the perforation [1], an act that could be regarded as “‘killing’ an object and all that it stood for” [3]. In all these cases the second fragment was nowhere to be found.

Whether this symbolic destruction related to the death of an individual; the breaking of a contract or agreement or perhaps the loss of individual of familial status remains open to debate.

Once broken, however, it seems that whatever symbolic value a macehead once held was lost:

“Fragmented maceheads were typically re-used for a wide-variety of tasks following breakage, with examples exhibiting damage from use as hammerstones, grinding/processing tools and anvils for flintknapping.” [1]

The fact that simple beach cobbles were also used for these tasks seems to indicate that:

“…even if the biographies of broken maceheads were known to those who used them, it was not necessary to treat them with any particular reverence.” [1]
Cushion macehead fragment found in midden in Trench X. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Cushion macehead fragment found in midden in Trench X. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

The breakage pattern at the Ness fits the profile noted across Orkney, where almost three-quarters were broken [1]. Where the Ness differs, however, is the make up of the macehead assemblage.

The Ness maceheads are predominently of the cushion type, which form less than a third of the entire Orcadian assemblage. Pestle maceheads are much less common on site and ovoid, which make up a quarter of the Orkney totaly, are completely absent [1].

What these differences might represent remains unclear.

Further reading


  • [1] Anderson-Whymark, H. (2020) Maceheads. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [2] Anderson-Whymark, H., Clarke, A., Edmonds, M. and Thomas, A. (2017) Process, form and time, maceheads in an Orcadian context. In Shaffrey, R. (ed) Written in Stone: Function, form, and provenancing of a range of Prehistoric Stone Objects. Southampton: The Highfield Press.
  • [3] The Significance of Maceheads – Working Stone.

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