Evidence of woven textiles confirmed at the Ness

Close up of the textile impression on the interior of a Neolithic pot from the Ness of Brodgar. (NoBT)

Close up of the textile impression on the interior of a Neolithic pot from the Ness of Brodgar. (NoBT)

We can confirm today that we have evidence of a woven Neolithic textile at the Ness of Brodgar – only the second example found in Scotland.

We don’t physically have a piece of 5,000-year-old fabric but what we do have is the impression it left when pressed against the wet clay of a pot (pictured above).

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive unless in very specific oxygen-free conditions, so the study of Neolithic textiles has to rely on secondary evidence.

To date, there is only one other piece of evidence suggesting the use of woven textiles in Neolithic Scotland – another clay imprint discovered in Dumfries and Galloway in 1966.

The exciting new Ness discoveries have come to light during a project started at the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands in 2019 by Jan Blatchford and Roy Towers and which closely examines impressions left on the surfaces of sherds of Grooved Ware pottery from the site.

The project uses Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) – a technique that uses a photographic rig to take multiple photos of a subject, each with a differently angled light source.

These pictures are combined, using computer software, to create a highly detailed digital image of the object’s surface that can be examined, on screen, from all angles and enlargements. The results reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

In this case, two co-joining pottery sherds carried the imprint of a woven cloth. The impressions appear on the inner face of the vessel, suggesting they were made by the potter’s clothing during the pot’s creation.

They were discovered by one of the Ness post-excavation volunteers, Lorraine Clay, who noted a clear impressed cord. She showed the sherds initially to Jan Blatchford and then Emma Smith, a regular at the Ness and a textile analyst and conservation specialist. Dr Susanna Harris, an expert in European prehistoric textiles, was able to give a second opinion on the RTI images confirming the identification.

The cord impression (left) with the textile mark to the right. (NoBT)

The cord impression (left) with the textile mark to the right. (NoBT)

The impression of a piece of Z-ply cord, around 4cm long and 3mm in diameter, is so clear it is possible to see the individual fibres.

Although the possibility of an additional textile impression was noted by Emma on initial viewing of the sherd, the ability to view the sherd under RTI has allowed this to be confirmed.

The imprint appears to show finely woven cloth, but the impression is less defined than the cord, meaning details of the weaving technique used are difficult to ascertain – although the yarn used was probably plant-based, possibly flax.

Within Neolithic Scotland textile finds are incredibly rare, and no other examples on Orkney.

The one other documented example, from Mainland Scotland, was found at Flint Howe, Dumfries and Galloway. It consisted of a small impression of a plain-weave textile on the exterior of a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age vessel (reported on by Audrey Henshall in the Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society XLV 1968: 236-237).

There is, however, no evidence of textile tools available in Neolithic Orkney, suggesting textiles were made by hand, or using tools made with organic materials that have not survived in the archaeological record. This lack of material culture around textile production can help us to infer what techniques they may have been using.

The pot base from Structure One brings the Ness's total to three.

A pot base from Structure One showing evidence of basketry marks – one of three found at the Ness to date. (NoBT)

Finally, the project is also revealing rare basketry and other cord impressions.

A growing number of base sherds from the Ness have impressions of coiled mats used in the construction of clay vessels. These match examples found at the Barnhouse Settlement and Rinyo in Orkney and also at Forest Road, Aberdeenshire.

All specimens suggest fibre mats of spiral construction that may have eased the turning of the pot as it was formed and even facilitated its transportation while it was dried and then fired.

Some body sherds have plied cord impressions on their exterior surfaces.  Short lengths of plied cord impressions, known as “maggots”, are often used as a decoration on some Neolithic pots but the irregular and unevenly impressed nature of the markings on the Ness examples may indicate that the marks are accidental. It may be that the pot was held in some form of basket whilst the clay was still wet.

Further examination of the “maggots” is ongoing.

Cordage and textiles would have been essential in prehistory, facilitating essential survival activities such as hunting, fishing, foraging, storage, cooking and providing warm clothing, matting and bedding.

The incredible survival of organic remains at the Bronze Age site of Must Farm, Cambridgeshire, highlights the prevalence and complexity of fibre technology in British prehistory.

Work continues to document and interpret these impressions, which, it is hoped, will provide an invaluable insight into the fibre technology of the Neolithic.

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