Introducing ceramics: An abundance of pottery

By Roy Towers

The coloured pottery sherd from Structure Twelve.

A coloured pottery sherd from Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

When you think about the Ness of Brodgar one word which comes to mind is “abundance”. There is an abundance of magnificent stone structures, an abundance of stone decoration and artefacts of every imaginable type, some not seen before.

And if you are interested in prehistoric pottery, there is also an astonishing abundance of ceramic material.

A beautifully decorated pottery sherd from Trench X. (Jo Bourne)

The Ness overflows with pottery. It is everywhere: inside and outside the structures, within the walls and underneath the pavings, both hidden and obvious and, most of all, folded in profusion into the thick blanket of midden which covered the site.

There is so much of it that we do not have anywhere near a definitive count. Our estimate thus far is that there are around 80,000 and upwards sherds of pottery, and no doubt more will emerge when excavation starts again next year.

A squashed pot from Trench X in 2019, with its base visible at the bottom of the picture. The decoration is the same as that used on nearly three-quarters of the pottery found at the nearby Barnhouse Settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)

Predominantly, it is composed of Grooved Ware, the signature ceramic of the Orcadian later Neolithic period. But the Neolithic in Orkney was a lengthy affair and Grooved Ware probably first appeared around 3200 cal BC and was likely still being manufactured 700 years later.

Over a time span like that things change; forms of pottery might alter, decoration certainly did and when we talk of the people who made the pottery we should refer to them in the plural, for peoples also change over time.

Unsurprisingly, in such a lengthy time span we have pottery which predates Grooved Ware and, at the other end of the scale, pottery which leads us into the misty recesses of the Bronze Age and on to the Iron Age.

Site director Nick Card in the pottery lab with specialists Roy and Jan.

Site director Nick Card in the pottery lab with ceramics specialists Roy Towers and Jan Blatchford. (Sigurd Towrie)

So, being blessed with this astonishing archaeological resource, what do we do with it, and why?

We’re going to try and answer some of those questions in the next wee while.

We’ll discuss how we physically handle and record the pottery, the various scientific analyses which are brought to bear on its many complexities and we’ll tell you about some of our discoveries.

Coloured pot reconstructions. (Cecily Webster)

Not everyone knows the full story of our coloured pottery, or of the extraordinary pottery manufacturing technique which we discovered at the Ness and which has not been found again until the Romano-British period.

We will discuss the techniques which are unravelling the uses to which the Grooved Ware was put, the food stuffs stored and prepared in it and the details of how it was made, fired, used and discarded.

All of it will relate to the peoples of the Neolithic, for they are the talented, sophisticated, puzzling and outlandish (only to our modern minds) souls who made this abundance of pottery.

Figure 1: One of the two beautiful pieces of pottery recovered from Structure Thirty today.

One of two beautiful pieces of pottery recovered from Structure Thirty in 2018.

And the pottery, even the most humble, crumbliest body sherd, is the key to understanding some of their thinking and gaining access, however limited, to their minds and thinking.

Lastly, if space, time and site director Nick permits, we can illustrate how the detective techniques flowing from the work at the Ness contribute to other ceramic studies, such as the pottery from a Bronze Age site which points to a Victorian mystery, and the Iron Age pots which refused to boil.

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