Basketry marks inside a Grooved Ware vessel? Another Ness pottery mystery…

s21 pottery sherds

By Roy Towers

The ceramic assemblage which has emerged from the Ness of Brodgar is, as we have often said, simply enormous. We think we have around 100,000 sherds of pottery but there may be more.

Within the stacked up museum boxes at Ness HQ there is almost every style of Grooved Ware pottery, all of it invaluable for typological analysis.

That is the systematic arrangement of the material into types based on similarities of form, construction, decoration or style, content or use…or sometimes combinations of these elements, and is one of the traditional building-blocks of ceramic analysis.

And then we have the surprises.

It is probably inevitable in an assemblage as big as the Ness ceramics that there will be things within those boxes which take us completely aback and which shine a new light on the Neolithic peoples who made and used those pots.

We have shared some of those revelations with you already, such as the coloured pot, the novel method of attaching cordons, the potential skeuomorph pot, the basketry impressions on exterior surfaces and, just this year, the surprising appearance of the fingerprints of young Neolithic men/boys on some of the sherds.
Pot Sherd

Now we have another one to puzzle over.

In a sense it is an off-shoot of basketry impressions which, you may recall, are found on the exterior surfaces of vessels, suggesting that the pots were placed within baskets before firing, possibly to stop them sagging or leaning.

Our new puzzle comes from Structure Twenty-Six, that strange little building between Structures Ten and Twelve. It is a bit of a mish-mash and seems to contain elements of earlier buildings –  indeed the sherds in question may have been re-deposited from either of the adjoining buildings.

s21 pottery sherds

These sherds are from a large, thick-walled vessel which has been subjected to considerable heat. Around the top of the rim on both interior and exterior surfaces, the “skin” of the pot has disappeared. This may have been a slip or it could just be the firing surface.

The real problem lies below that on the interior surface of the pot where, to our astonishment, there are many roughly parallel lines of what appear to be basketry impressions.

As mentioned above, basketry impressions on the exterior surface probably represent a pot placed in a basket. How can there be impressions on the interior of the vessel?

s21 pottery sherds

The first question is, are these the impressions of basketry?

We know that there can be interior decoration on Grooved Ware pots, and also that the interior surface of pots could be thinned with a sharp object. In these cases the tools used would be recognisable.

Incision leaves straight, thin impressions and the scraping marks of thinning are equally obvious. But, as the images show, these marks have not been made by a thin point, or even a comb. They are linear and roughly parallel, but irregular within the lines. In other words, they look like the impressions of something naturally organic and not those of a tool, be it a comb, a fashioned point or a scraper.

We can think of only one way in which basketry impressions could be made on the interior of a vessel and that would be by the application of clay to the outside surface of a basket which was then fired.

This seems wholly improbable and some may ask if what we have is an example of fired daub applied to a woven screen of some sort. We can assure you, this is definitely a Grooved Ware vessel.

There are a very few examples of vessels being made by the application of clay to a mould, perhaps a basket, but they are few and far between. We will send images of our pot made by Jan’s RTI photography to colleagues who specialise in basketry and remain hopeful.

Basically, though, we are puzzled and would love to hear what you think.

All suggestions are welcome, as long as they do not involve aliens or Egyptian priests.

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