Introducing ceramics 3 – how was Neolithic pottery made?

By Roy Towers

An incised pot wall and base, featuring the ‘Barnhouse’ motif, ready for lifting in Trench X in 2019. (Sigurd Towrie)

How was Neolithic pottery made, and in particular the Grooved Ware pottery from the Ness of Brodgar?

We should acknowledge at the outset that this is not a simple question.

Every potter at the Ness had a multiplicity of problems to answer before the process could even begin. Where was the clay to be gathered and how should it be prepared?

What recipe should be used for the addition of temper and did the form and possible decoration of the pot alter the approach?

How much fuel would be needed for firing and what part did the eventual use of the pot play in these choices?

In a brief account we cannot address all the questions involved, indeed they form a vital part of the ongoing research into the assemblage at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Archaeology Institute in Kirkwall. Instead we will concentrate on the actual construction of the pots and then on the vexed issue of firing.

Making a pot is not an easy task, especially if you have the weight of expectation of your peers and whoever taught you in the first place resting on your shoulders – there was undoubtedly a “right” way to make a pot. Physical conditions, such as the often-damp climate of Orkney could make matters more difficult as pot had to be dried before firing, and often during the actual pot construction.

Ceramics specialist Dr Mike Copper recreating a Grooved Ware vessel for a 2018 exhibition in the Orkney Museum. (Mike and Claire Copper)

Ceramics specialist Dr Mike Copper recreating a Grooved Ware vessel for a 2018 exhibition in the Orkney Museum. (Mike and Claire Copper)

Ness pot was most often made by building up strips or coils of clay, one on top of another and then smoothing them together. These were assembled on a clay disc base.

Experimental archaeology shows that this was not easy.

A series of experiments carried out in Orkney by Dr Richard Jones of the University of Glasgow illustrated the difficulties. The summer in which he carried out his experiments was dry-ish, but even so he found that only a few coils could be added to the body of the pot without leaving it for a day or so to dry sufficiently for the process to be repeated.

He concluded that even a medium-sized vessel could take several weeks to complete.

How do we know that building with clay coils was the main technique? Small pots can be made by pulling up from a clay base, as in a thumb-pot. Slab building could also be used but we have clear evidence that coil pots were preferred.

Smoothing one clay coil downwards and over the one below must be carried out with care. If the process is skimped the pot will eventually fracture after firing along the join.

Adding a coil to a pot base. (Mike and Claire Copper)

Adding a coil to a pot base. (Mike and Claire Copper)

We have found numerous examples of this and, because the slightly pointed coil which remains on the pot often resembles a rim, these fractures used to be called “false-rims”. The gold-standard of evidence is to find a false rim together with the coil above, now detached. The upper coil has an N-shaped profile on its underside which fits perfectly over the false rim like tongue-and-groove.

Lastly, why did Grooved Ware pots have flat bases, in contrast to the round-based earlier Neolithic pottery?

This is an important question and the usual, and wholly unsatisfactory, answer is to suggest that it was convenient to place flat-bottomed pots on the flat stones which constitute so much of our site. However, tabular stones are abundant in Orkney and round-based pots can easily be held safely in place when supported by three stones in a triangle.

We don’t have the definitive answer yet but we do have some intriguing suggestions.

And here we are going to be mean. Our ideas on this, and many other subjects, can be found in the wonderful book under production at the moment which contains all the information on every aspect of the Ness which any sane person (and many of the insane) could wish to know. It will be published at the end of this year, so buy the book, folks, with all proceeds going to Ness funds.

However, we are not completely mean, so our next section will dive deep into the thorny question of firing your pottery…

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