Dig Diary – Thursday, July 20, 2017

Day Fourteen

Stonehenge-style ‘incense cup’ unearthed at the Ness

What a difference a day makes! The Ness yesterday, bathed in sunshine, with Trench T in the foreground.

What a difference a day makes! The Ness yesterday, bathed in sunshine, with Trench T in the foreground.


As forecast, it rained and rained today, and then rained some more.

There was no digging as diggers are valuable (but don’t tell them) and we have a distinct aversion to broken legs, arms and collar bones dues to tumbling on slippy stones.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow and we are sure the sun will be shining.

We have a real treat for you all now. We have been teasing you a little over the past couple of days and hinting at a momentous find.

Well, here is it, courtesy of our very own Claire. . .


Fragments of the ‘incense’ cup. Only four others of this style are known and all are from the Stonehenge-Wessex area.

Hi, I am Claire Copper and I have been lucky enough to be part of the Ness team for a number of years now (possibly ten? — sorry, I have lost count!).

I have recently completed my MPhil based at the University of Bradford (The Early Bronze Age Funerary Cups of Southern England) and would like to introduce you to my obsession for the last four years!

These pots (more commonly known as incense cups, pygmy cups or accessory cups) are small ceramic pots (usually around 50mm high), highly decorated and sometimes perforated with small holes.

They are mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts, often associated with human remains (either with inhumation or cremation burials).

Analysis of the human remains shows that they are found with men, women and children of all ages and are sometimes even found with groups of individuals.

Their use has been the subject of much debate over the years and although some residue analysis has been carried out, by Alex Gibson and Ben Stern at the University of Bradford, the results have proven largely inconclusive.

Photo showing the 'waisted' profile of the shallow-dished vessel.

Photo showing the ‘waisted’ profile of the shallow-dished vessel.

It has been suggested by Alison Sheridan, of National Museums Scotland, that they may have been used as “chafing” vessels to carry embers to the funerary pyre, while other ideas include use for the burning of incense, probably during funerary rituals (hence maybe the reason for the holes in some).

Although they are very varied, particularly in terms of their decoration, some appear to form distinct groups such as “grape cups” ( which are decorated all over with small pellets of clay) and “Fenestrated cups” (which have pieces of clay cut out from the wall of the vessel forming small slots or windows).

One group (of which only four examples are currently known) are particularly distinctive, being shallow “dished” vessels.

While two of these were found associated with Early Bronze Age burials (one in a barrow at Wilsford, near Stonehenge, the other in a barrow on Bincombe Down, Dorset), a third was found in an Aubrey Hole at Stonehenge.

It was suggested by ceramics expert, Isobel Smith, that these pots share certain affinities with Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery and if this is the case the two examples from barrows could represent “curated” items.

A group of hardy, and very cheerful, American visitors huddle in the site shop today, to escape the monsoon-like rain.

So why is this relevant to the Ness of Brodgar?

Well, earlier this week, in an area I was supervising, the fragments of a very small vessel were brought to me by Alice, one of our volunteers.

Although incomplete, and with a flat base, this pot shares similar characteristics to the small group I have just mentioned (my supervisor Alex Gibson, thankfully, seems to agree with me).

It has a slightly “waisted” profile, shallow-dished upper surface and is similar size to the others in this group.

Is this another cup? If so, it is very rare, with only four other examples known and all from around the Wessex area. This makes it even more intriguing.

Perhaps I need to update my corpus?

And how exciting to find it here, where I have been working for so many years!

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