Latest prehistoric fingerprints belonged to 13-year-old boy

An image of the latest Ness of Brodgar fingerprints captured using Reflectance Transformation Imaging. (Jan Blatchford)
An image of the latest Ness of Brodgar fingerprints captured using Reflectance Transformation Imaging. (Jan Blatchford)

The latest prehistoric fingerprints on a pottery fragment from the Ness of Brodgar belonged to a 13-year-old boy.

Previous 5,000-year-old prints from the Neolithic complex in Orkney were identified as belonging to both adolescent and adult males and the two new examples may be another indication of young potters being taught by more experienced individuals.

The new prints bring the total from the Ness to eight. Of these five have were detailed enough to be analysed by Professor Kent Fowler, the director of the University of Manitoba’s Ceramic Technology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada.

Research has shown that fingerprint components differ according to age and sex. The distance between ridges, for example, increases as an individual grows, while male ridges are usually broader.

Measuring the density and breadth of the fingerprint ridges, and accounting for the shrinkage of the clay during drying and firing, Prof Fowler determined that the previous fingerprints belonged to an adolescent male and two adult males, around 19 years of age.

The pottery sherd with the four fingerprints highlighted. Of these, only prints C and D were detailed enough to allow analysis. (Jan Blatchford)
The pottery sherd with the four fingerprints highlighted. Of these, only prints A and C were detailed enough to allow analysis. (Jan Blatchford)

Examining the latest pot sherd, Prof Fowler confirmed it had four clear fingerprints, two of which could be analysed.

“Both came out as males, but the ages are younger than we saw in the previous two sherds. Print A centres around 14 years old and Print C around 13 years. So, I’m reasonably confident that we are looking at post-pubescent males here, but younger than the three identified previously.”

Although it is not possible to say for sure that the two prints belong to the same person, Prof Fowler thinks it is plausible.

“Statistically, the age values of the two are very close – we are talking months not years – and from the variation in the forensic literature you could expect as much from measurements of different fingers of the same person,” he explained.

“In this case, it is quite likely the prints belong the same individual given they are so close together and on the same surface of the sherd.”

“At 13 or 14 years of age, the young potters would certainly be strong enough to hand build the pottery and they would have had the motor skills to do it, although they might not admirably compress the clay.

Although the number of Ness of Brodgar samples is still small, the analysis exhibits a pattern encountered by Prof Fowler in the Middle East.

“The presence of younger and older prints on all the Orkney sherds so far is interesting and might relate to teaching and learning the craft. On Bronze Age pottery from the Levant we found multiple prints of different age and sex and some of the same sex with different ages. I argued this was a ‘hands-on’ approach to teaching, which us something we can still see ethnographically.

“But there are also as many instances where potters let novices work out shaping techniques on their own, after observing, without directly getting their hands on it. So, there can be no argument that we must have prints of younger and older potters on the same pot to make a case for knowledge transmission of the craft.”

To date, all the identified Ness of Brodgar prints have belonged to young males.

Nick Card, the director of the excavations, said: “This is yet another exciting discovery at the Ness, and although it is early days we could be seeing the emergence of a pattern developing for the production of pottery in the Neolithic, which would have implications for the division of labour and tasks.”

  • The fingerprints were discovered by ceramics specialists Roy Towers and Jan Blatchford during post-excavation work on the huge assemblage of prehistoric ceramics recovered from the Ness of Brodgar – the largest collection of late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery in the UK.

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