Introducing ceramics 2: The excavation process

By Roy Towers

A large sherd of decorated Grooved Ware pottery ready to be lifted.
A large sherd of decorated Grooved Ware pottery ready to be lifted. (ORCA)

Pottery is remarkable stuff. It may be broken, kicked about, scuffed and generally disrespected, but if it stays below ground surface and avoids frost and the plough it can last for thousands of years.

And so it is at the Ness. Every year of excavation has brought countless sherds of pottery to light and they must all be looked after carefully.

An array of pot finds drying in the finds hut.
An array of pottery finds drying in the finds hut. (ORCA)

The first responsibility is on the digger.

No matter how they moan about “not more pottery”, they should not poke at it, scratch at it or in any way attempt to clean it … or stand on it! Instead it should be carefully popped into a plastic finds bag, correctly marked with a context and small finds number.

The next stage is the admirable finds team in their cosy hut where the pot is carefully laid out on its bag for drying. This is a crucial stage because wet pottery delivered at a later date to the lab for assessment is a nightmare.

Damp pot in a plastic bag breeds mould which looks nice, like tiny star busts on the pot surface, but which can be an obvious health risk for the pot specialist.

Properly dried, the Ness pot at least is usually covered with the midden material in which it was found, some of which sets like concrete.

On much of the pot applied decoration is usually obvious but incised decoration can often be invisible.

Applied decoration is when strips of clay are pressed onto the exterior surface of the pot, often in patterns, while incised decoration is patterns cut into the surface of the pot.

Cleaning a pot sherd - in this case a section containing part of the vessel wall and its base. (Sigurd Towrie)
Cleaning a pot sherd – in this case a section containing part of the vessel wall and its base. (Sigurd Towrie)

We have an interesting story to tell you about applied decoration at a later date.

This is where two vital tools come in.

A nice, soft brush with natural hair can gently remove enough of the accretion to see if any decoration is present and, to be honest, sometimes a stiffer brush is also used but not, as new volunteers often believe, a toothbrush.

A low-powered stereo binocular microscope is a wonderful thing. Every Ness sherd is examined under one and it is remarkable the detail revealed which eyes, or even a hand-lens, can miss.

Many different attributes of the sherds are noted and recorded on an Excel spreadsheet.

These include the forms of rims or bases, sherd thickness, pot diameter, weight, size, decoration, finish, colour, fabric and firing details, together with other technological features.

Roy examines an unusual sherd of pot at Ness dig HQ. (ORCA)

The details on the spreadsheet can then be manipulated to reveal trends in manufacture, use and setting at different periods and in different parts of the site.

We undertake this close-focus examination of pot sherds because we know the extraordinary amount of information they can hold, but even this arduous procedure is only just the beginning of the knowledge which can be squeezed from the pottery.

In the next sections we will look at how Neolithic pottery was made, the decisions and techniques which faced the potters and some details of how the pots were used.

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