Scalloped-rim pots from Trench T – an early Christmas present at Ness HQ

By Roy Towers

Roy faced with what initially appeared to be a pile of concreted midden. (Nick Card)

Roy faced with what initially appeared to be a pile of concreted midden. (Nick Card)

It’s nearly Christmas and many of us will be looking forward to exciting and enigmatic parcels of presents to open. At Ness HQ we have unwrapped an early present – although at first glance it looked less than enticing.

During the 2018 excavations, diggers in Trench T were working their way through large spreads of midden when they noticed orange-coloured flecks of what might be pottery embedded in some of it.

They could have dug into the spread, which would have been a mistake. Thankfully, they excavated around it and sent several trays with large lumps of the midden to the finds hut, and there it stayed until a few days ago.

Such finds are not unusual. Often, when they are examined, they turn out to be nothing more than lumps of midden into which a few stray crumbs and fragments of pottery have been incorporated.

The Trench T lumps are different.

They are large, with each tray holding a single lump of c.16 x 14 inches and around six inches thick. The midden material itself is dry and hard, turning almost powdery when worked.

The saving grace is that when midden enfolding pottery dries, it can separate ever-so-slightly from the ceramic material, leaving a few fine fracture lines between pot and midden.

The first section of rim (at top of the picture) begins to emerge from its midden prison. (Nick Card)

The first section of rim (at top of the picture) begins to emerge from its midden prison. (Nick Card)

One of these was visible in the midden in the first tray, and the gentle insertion of a scalpel blade into the crack removed some midden revealing a distinctive half-moon section of pottery.  It was instantly recognisable as part of a scalloped rim.

More on these unusual rims later.

The first task was to excavate the ceramic from the midden and that is a messy and difficult business. The midden is welded to the pot and is always tougher than the ceramic. It takes careful force to remove it, but applying force to the midden also applies force to the weaker pot behind it which often disintegrates.

The answer is to use delicate tools and I favour small modelling tools, bamboo sticks (thanks to many Chinese restaurants for their chopsticks) brushes and surgical scalpels.

Another section of rim is eased out. (Nick Card)

Another section of rim is eased out. (Nick Card)

The messiness is on a grand scale and the only answer is an old lab coat, masks and protective glasses as midden, either as powder or chips, flies everywhere. An industrial cleaner is also required when you finish, not to mention a bath.

The only other requirement is experience. As the pot is completely enveloped in the midden it is essential to have an idea of what might lie below while scraping and chipping away the midden.

The Trench T pot is a perfect example. If you are familiar with scalloped rim pots you will know that very often there is an applied or incised cordon running around the exterior surface, just below the rim. If you don’t know this you can easily chip it away while removing midden.

Half of one tray has now been excavated and the results are really exciting.

The pot within the midden was obviously broken into sections before we started. The first section to be uncovered was, indeed, a scalloped rim with an applied cordon 16mm below it on the exterior surface. This runs parallel with the rim and is decorated with alternate impressions on the cordon surface.

Roy reveals a bit more. (Nick Card)

Roy reveals a bit more. (Nick Card)

The next two sherds to be excavated fitted under the rim and have traces of smaller applied cordons running diagonally down the pot. These cordons have  been grooved along their length. Unfortunately the parallel applied cordon has detached, although it can be refitted easily.

The next scalloped rim to emerge is even better. It is 125mm long, 81mm deep and is intact. Again, it has an applied cordon below the rim with vertical impressions at 8mm intervals. These rims are undoubtedly from the same vessel but there are some oddities.

As mentioned, the first cordon has alternating impressions while the second has vertical jabs. As it is the same vessel I can only assume that the potter tired of the alternate impressions and settled for vertical jabs for the rest of the pot.

Even more carelessly, the diagonal cordon on the second rim has been pressed into the parallel cordon, disrupting its decoration.

Scalloped rims and applied decorated cordons. (Nick Card)

What are scalloped rim vessels?

They are present on several Orcadian later Neolithic sites such as Pool, in Sanday, and the Links of Noltland, in Westray. We have a few examples at the Ness, including solitary examples from Trench T, but scalloped rims are not frequent.

They are termed “scalloped” because of the half moon-shaped sections placed on top of the rims, and these half-moons are sometimes grouped in twos around the rim. They are normally found on large vessels and our new Trench T examples seem to be from very large pots. They are impractical for pouring liquids but may well have been used for cooking or storage.

Some examples have a ridge or cordon just below the rim on the interior, perhaps for holding a lid of some sort but out examples are too fragile on the interior surface for further investigation.

As to dating, the Pool report suggested that the phase in which they occurred there is dated to the “later part of the third millennium”. We would suggest they may date to near the end of the Grooved Ware period, perhaps around 2400-2500 cal BC.

We have several large lumps from the same or associated contexts still to excavate and will let you know what happens.

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