Introducing ceramics 6 – sticking cordons

By Roy Towers

We suggested in an earlier part of this mini-series on ceramics that the goal of archaeological endeavour was to understand better the complex, talented peoples of the Neolithic and to unravel what they did and, if possible, how and why they did it.

2014: Trench P overview. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
Trench P overview. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

The astonishing scale and beauty of the Ness structures, and the material culture which they hold, illustrates clearly that these were exceptional people. As we say to visitors, forget any ideas you may have about them squatting round a camp-fire grunting to each other.

Sophisticated and clever though they were, we can speculate with some justification that they thought about the world around them in a very different manner to most of us.

For us, a rock laying on the ground is an inanimate object. For Neolithic peoples the rock, indeed the natural world all around them, was probably believed to be animate. It had agency and potential and could affect their lives  significantly. They had to interact with it carefully and in prescribed ways.

There are even modern examples.

A few years ago an Icelandic friend gave me a lift in his car to a site outside Reykjavik. A large rock sat beside a bend in the road and there had been several road accidents on this very bend. He told me that local people believed that the rock was responsible. It had somehow influenced and brought about the accidents. They were, however, nervous about moving it. These are sophisticated people.

Pottery sherd 5664. (ORCA)
Pottery sherd 5664. (📷 ORCA)

What has this to do with ceramics?

It’s a useful lesson to remember when studying other people’s material cultures that our ways are not the only ways, that we should always expect and respect differences and surprises and that we should never, ever assume.

That’s the lecture over. We can now go to the extraordinary Structure Twelve at the Ness where a huge surprise was found.

Structure Twelve is notable for its beautiful stonework, its abundant pottery (it is “pot-central”) and its distinctly chequered history.

After slumping and questionable rebuilding, it eventually collapsed, sending sheets of roof tiles sliding down and covering a large deposit of Grooved Ware at the north end.

Much of the pottery was decorated with applied cordons, which we have already described as strips of clay pressed onto the exterior surface of vessels in decorative schemes.

The problem with applied cordons is that they do not stay applied.

We often find the detached cordons in the midden alongside other pot sherds. They are instantly recognisable, being D-shaped with flat backs where they have been pressed onto the exterior surface of the pot.

Why do they fall off? Well, no modern potter would stick a cordon or a jug handle on in this way. They would abrade the surface where the join was to be made, and perhaps apply a dab of slip as a glue. It is called “score and slip”.

At Structure Twelve, sometime in the decades around c. 2300 cal BC, a potter lost his temper.

The groove/scoring (1) used to secure applied cordons (2) to the pot exterior. (ORCA)
The groove/scoring (1) used to secure applied cordons (2) to the pot exterior. (📷 ORCA)

Fed up with their cordons falling off, they adopted a radical solution.

Defining where they wanted his cordons to be applied, the exterior surface of the pot was prepared by either scratching cross-hatching, or by scoring deeper lines. They then pressed the cordons into the prepared surface, creating a sort of tongue-and-groove effect which secured the cordons much more securely.

Did it work?

Up to a point, but we can acclaim the ingenuity of the unknown Neolithic potter who faced up to his/her problem and went a long way to solving it.

Incidentally, we do not find this technique again in the archaeological record until Romano-British times, a couple of thousand years later.

This does not mean that it does not exist between these two dates. I strongly expect that re-examination of Neolithic ceramic assemblages excavated in the early years of the archaeological discipline may show similar examples.

You know, many of you, that we have coloured pottery. Next time, we will give you the technical details of the investigation into the colours involved.

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