Evidence of fine ceramics at the Ness?

By Roy Towers

Cecily and Travis sieving the flotation tank residue. (Sigurd Towrie)

Cecily and Travis sieving the flotation tank residue. (Sigurd Towrie)

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Cecily Webster, our eagle-eyed flotation expert, and her assistant, Travis.

Their task is to take the buckets full of carefully gathered samples from the excavation and to winnow them, through a process of flotation in water coupled with ever finer sieves, in order to recover seeds, small artefacts and anything which might have escaped the excavators.

This is no criticism of the Ness diggers, some of whom are among the best in the business, but all of us know how easy it can be to miss a fragment of pot when the wind is howling around your ears and your knees are squelching painfully in mud.

Just before the current lockdown Cecily passed us a few sample bags containing some small pot sherds which had been recovered from large sample buckets.

Some of the sherds were very small indeed, although possibly they were fragments which had flaked off larger sherds.

Sample bags containing pottery fragments recovered by flotation. (Sigurd Towrie)

Sample bags containing pottery fragments recovered by flotation. (Sigurd Towrie)

This gave us an idea for an extra project, in addition to the normal work of recording and analysis of the Ness ceramic assemblage.

We have done this sort of thing before. In some senses it is a way of keeping sane while working on our main assemblage which, you will remember, numbers around 90,000 sherds. Not only are we still sane (most of the time) but a number of interesting discoveries have been made in this way.

These include our coloured pot, the unique method of attaching decorative cordons, and our colleague Jan’s innovative photographic work which captured what is probably the oldest woven imprint (on a pot sherd) ever discovered in Scotland.

Full details of these finds, and much more, can be found in the ceramics chapter in our major new publication, The Ness of Brodgar: As It Stands, a book which is not just for Christmas but for every day of the year.

Back to the project: we remember our distinguished colleague Professor Mark Edmonds commenting that much of the artefactual material discovered at the Ness suggests that fine work was being carried out on site. Mark was probably referring to stone tools, but we did wonder if this might also apply to ceramics.

We have evidence, of course, for many vessels of varying sizes from enormous down to just large, and on to medium and small. But a few sherds discovered recently suggested that finer vessels may have been present on site.

We asked Cecily if there were any more small ceramic samples to be had, expecting a few bags. Instead, a very large box arrived and the work of examining them has now started.

We must be extremely careful with this little project. When examining very small sherds it must be kept in mind that they may be broken pieces of larger sherds. Applied cordons are a good example of this. Several detached cordons have been noted already and some are undoubtedly broken fragments of larger cordons.

A few very small sherds do, however, appear to be complete, or near complete, cordons which, judging by their size, could really only have been applied to very small vessels.

It may not be possible to draw any firm conclusions from work of this sort but we have a good number of sherds still to be examined and will keep you informed of what happens…

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