Focus on finds: maceheads
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:
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) .
Maceheads have not been found in Early Neolithic Orcadian contexts suggesting they were a later adoption – perhaps reflecting “influences from southern Britain and Ireland” . But after their introduction, around 3200BC, the number found throughout the islands suggests they acquired a particular importance, significance or status .
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 .
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.” 
With maceheads, we have those finished to a “workable standard”  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”  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.
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!  The damage noted on some confirms they were used as blunt weapons or hammers .
So can we say that the more spectacular maceheads had an entirely different function? Not necessarily.
As Hugo Anderson-Whymark points out:
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 , an act that could be regarded as “‘killing’ an object and all that it stood for” . 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:
The fact that simple beach cobbles were also used for these tasks seems to indicate that:
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 .
What these differences might represent remains unclear.
- Macehead chronology – Working Stone
- Macehead manufacture – Working Stone
- Raw material – Working Stone
- Types – Working Stone
- The Significance of Maceheads – Working Stone
- Gallery of Orcadian maceheads – Working Stone
-  Anderson-Whymark, H. (2020) Maceheads. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
-  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.
-  The Significance of Maceheads – Working Stone.