Focus on finds – Structure Eight’s whalebone macehead

The whalebone macehead in situ. (ORCA)
The whalebone macehead in situ. (📷 ORCA)

In 2010, an extraordinary macehead emerged from one of the side recesses in Structure Eight.

Regular readers will know that polished stone maceheads – although not a daily discovery – have been a regular feature of excavation at the Ness. This one, however, was made of whalebone!

2010: Roy discovers the whalebone macehead in Structure Eight. (ORCA)
2010: Roy discovers the whalebone macehead in Structure Eight. (📷 ORCA)

It was part of a cache of artefacts that included a polished stone axe, a whale tooth, quartz pebbles, a flint blade, a stone spatulate tool and a multi-hollowed cobble.

Stone maceheads are beautiful to behold and exquisitely crafted. And hard. They get their names from the fact they could be hafted to create a hammer-like tool or weapon – in fact, early antiquarian reports often refer to maceheads as hammer stones.

The majority, however, show little signs of use wear, suggesting the more elaborate examples were more than just weapons. That said, as Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark et al point out:

“Patterns of use damage indicate that even the finest tools were used to deliver heavy blows on some occasions. Whether this was against another person or an animal, and in what scenario, is not clear, but it is perhaps significant that we find Neolithic cattle skulls with the tell-tale signs of poleaxing.” [1]

So why create a macehead from a softer material such as whalebone?

Whalebone maceheads, although very rare, are not unknown elsewhere.

Two were found at the Knap of Howar, among other crafted whalebone tools, along with two fashioned from antler. A similar antler macehead was found among the human remains inside the Quanterness chambered cairn outside Kirkwall.

These antler artefacts have been suggested to be prototypes for stone maceheads. [2][3]

Whalebone macehead recovered from the Knap of Howar during excavation in the 1970s. (Ritchie et al. 1983)
Whalebone macehead recovered from the Knap of Howar during excavation in the 1970s. (Ritchie et al. 1983)

While it may be that antler is easier and quicker to craft, perhaps they – and the whalebone examples – had a different, more practical role.

In 1983, Anna Ritchie suggested that many of the tools from the Knap of Howar could relate to hide-preparation and leatherworking. [4]

The antler and whalebone maceheads, she added, were functional, perhaps used as “hammers or mallets in flint-working and in driving in the pegs by which skins were stretched and dried.”

She conceded that the narrow perforations in the Knap of Howar examples “would not allow very substantial handles”.

We know that flint was being worked in buildings across the Ness and, in Structure Eight, so was pitchstone.

Working flint sometimes requires a “hammer” made from softer material and the base of an antler is commonly used for the task. Why anyone would go to the trouble of shaping whalebone macehead when a simple antler “bopper” would do the trick remains something of a mystery.

That said, the fact Ness whalebone macehead did come from a deposit that could be interpreted as a “toolkit” might add weight to an argument that it had a more functional role.

And as noted last week:

“There is no reason to assume that the practical and symbolic qualities of an artefact were held apart so sharply in the Neolithic.” [1b]

Perhaps our whalebone macehead held some significance to its owner or the tasks it may have been used for – a significance we obviously cannot fathom from the artefact itself.

Or was it simply showmanship? A curated and rare object? Superstition? Or, if it was a purely practical tool, did its owner simply prefer its heft and feel?

The Ness of Brodgar whalebone macehead after conservation. (AOC Archaeology)
The Ness of Brodgar whalebone macehead after conservation. (📷 AOC Archaeology)


  • [1]
  • [1b] 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] Roe, F.E.S., (1968) Stone maceheads and latest Neolithic cultures of the British Isles. In Coles, J.M. Coles and Simpson, D.D.A. (eds) Studies in Ancient Europe. Leicester University Press.
  • [3] Simpson, D.D.A., (1996) ‘Crown’ antler maceheads and the later Neolithic in Britain. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 62, pp. 293-309). Cambridge University Press.
  • [4] Ritchie, A., Bramwell, D., Collins, G.H., Dickson, C., Evans, J.G., Henshall, A.S., Inskeep, R., Kenward, H., Noddle, B.A., Vaughan, M. and Wheeler, A. (1983) Excavation of a Neolithic farmstead at Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 113, pp. 40-121).

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