Pottery residue analysis earns researcher Royal Archaeological Institute prize for science

Julia (centre) with her RAI Prize.
Julia (centre) with her RAI Prize. Also pictured are, left, Penny Bickle (senior lecturer at the University of York and RAI early career officer) and Rhiannon Stevens (associate professor at UCL and editor of RAI).

PhD candidate Julia Becher, who is analysing organic residues on Ness of Brodgar pottery sherds, has been awarded the Royal Archaeological Institute (RAI) prize for science on the archaeology of Britain and Ireland. 

Julia received her prize after delivering her presentation, Feasting at the Ness of Brodgar? Tracing subsistence patterns during the Late Neolithic, Britain using organic residue analysis, at the 2024 UK Archaeological Sciences (UKAS) conference in York last week. 

Julia Becher presentation.
Julia delivering her presentation at the UKAS seminar last week.

A delighted Julia said: “It’s a great honour to receive the RAI prize! Following the two Current Archaeology Awards, this is a perfect reinforcement in recognition of the immense Ness of Brodgar teamwork, from the field to the lab. 

“I am super happy that I got the chance to work on this project, with all these incredible people, and am really looking forward to all the amazing output. Go Grooved Ware!” 

Her presentation focused on the Ness of Brodgar lipid dataset, which is made up of over 300 samples obtained by Julia as part of her PhD at the University of York and Université Côte d’Azur.

The project is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme ChemArch.

The samples came from across the Ness site, allowing both a temporal and spatial comparison. The first stage of the data analysis was the identification of possible trends of Grooved Ware pottery use by comparing the three phases identified at the complex (Phase 1: 3400–3200 BC; Phase 2: 3100–2900 BC; Phase 3: 2900–2400 BC).

The Ness sample set is particularly important because the site is the one of the few that spans the entire Neolithic Grooved Ware sequence, thus allowing the investigation of changes in pottery style and function over time. 

The lipid data was accompanied by scanning electron microscope and protein analysis of charred foodcrusts to shed light on how the pots were used.

Julia excavating in Structure Ten.
Julia excavating in Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar.

The results add to the evidence that later pots were not made to last and perhaps had a special role – such as animal fat processing (specifically dairy and ruminant carcass fats).

It  also suggests that pots had a seasonal function – from production, dairy processing in spring/summer to secondary vessel use of ruminant carcass fats in autumn/winter. This, however, is a working hypothesis and needs further verification.

Julia is currently in her third year of PhD and due to finish in autumn 2024.

The Royal Archaeological Institute is a leading UK archaeology society, with a history dating back to 1844. Its interests span all aspects of the archaeological, architectural and landscape history of Britain and Ireland. The RAI promotes and supports archaeology in many different ways and everyone is welcome to join, to benefit from our monthly lectures, study tours, research grants and access to the Archaeological Journal.

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