Potter’s fingerprint discovered on 5,000-year-old sherd

The Neolithic potter's fingerprint on a sherd of pottery recovered at the Ness of Brodgar. (Jan Blatchford)
The Neolithic potter’s fingerprint on a sherd of pottery recovered at the Ness of Brodgar. (📷 Jan Blatchford)

In Orkney, around 5,000 years ago, a Neolithic potter sat down and began work. In the process of creating their vessel, the potter pressed a finger into the wet clay and left an imprint on the surface.

Work under way in Trench X in 2016. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Work under way in Trench X in 2016. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

That fingerprint is the latest discovery made 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.

The potter’s fingerprint was noted by our ceramics specialist Roy Towers while examining a sherd of pottery recovered from Trench X, the extension added to Trench P in 2016.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) was called upon to confirm the suspected print. This process sees multiple photographs taken of a subject, each with a different (but controlled) light source.

These are then combined, using computer software, and create a highly detailed model of the object that can be lit from all angles and examined on screen. The resulting images often reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

In this case, RTI work by Jan Blatchford confirmed and recorded the only fingerprint encountered at the excavation site to date.

An image of the fingerprint captured using Reflectance Transformation Imaging this week. (📷 Jan Blatchford)

Given the widespread use of clay in prehistory, ancient fingerprints are not uncommon. As a result, research into the archaeological use of fingerprints has been ongoing for a number of years. It is hoped, funds permitting, that analysis of the Ness of Brodgar fingerprint will reveal the gender and age of the potter.

Commenting on the discovery, excavation director Nick Card said: “Working on such as high-status site as the Ness of Brodgar, with its beautiful buildings and stunning range of artefacts it can be all to easy to forget about the people behind this incredible complex. But this discovery really does bring these people back into focus.

“Although finding the fingerprint impression won’t hugely impact our work, it does give us a highly personal, poignant connection to the people of Neolithic Orkney, 5,000 years ago.”

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