It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Over recent years a considerable body of work, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, has drawn increasing attention to the social significance of ceramic technology. Pot shapes and decorative motifs, being highly visible, are easy to copy, and for this reason tend to cross ethnic, linguistic and tribal frontiers with relative ease. Pot fashioning techniques, however, are hard to discern once the vessel is finished and tend to be passed from teacher to pupil (in most small-scale societies this tends to be from mother to daughter). As a result, the distribution of different techniques tends to correlate much more closely with social groupings. Furthermore, there are many equally good ways to make pots, meaning that the method chosen is often a matter of habit or social choice rather than physical or mechanical necessity. One implication of this is that it may well be possible for archaeologists to identify different ‘communities of practice’, perhaps corresponding to social groups that we cannot otherwise recognise, by looking for variations in the way pots were made through time or in different regions.

Examining a Grooved Ware pot for evidence of manufacturing techniques employed

While few large-scale studies of technical choices in the production of prehistoric pottery have been undertaken in Britain, this is nonetheless an approach with great potential. As such, a small-scale pilot project was recently undertaken as part of the Tracing the Lines project at the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen. Pottery from the sites of Kintore and Midmill, close to Aberdeen, was examined by Mike Copper to ascertain whether a change in the way the pots were made accompanied the change in style from Middle Neolithic ‘Impressed Ware’ to Late Neolithic ‘Grooved Ware’ at around 3,000 BC.

Cordons formed by ‘pinching-up’ (left, on an Impressed Ware pot – note the fingernail impressions) and application (right, on a Grooved Ware pot). Both vessels are from the site of Kintore in Aberdeenshire

While the results of this study are still being analysed, it is of interest that certain differences were indeed noted. These included different ways of forming raised ‘cordons’ and joining coils of clay during the formation of the vessel walls. However, there was little evidence that the clays used to make the pots were being prepared in new ways with the introduction of Grooved Ware, and the vessels were deposited in pits in a similar fashion at both sites during both the Middle and the Late Neolithic.

Overlapping coil join on an Impressed Ware pot from Midmill, Aberdeenshire (left) and flat coil join on a Grooved Ware pot from the same site (right).

While this pilot study has demonstrated the potential of this approach, it is clear that much larger datasets would be needed to ascertain whether significant differences existed across Britain and Ireland.

Many thanks are due to the staff at the Aberdeen University Museum Collections Centre for their kind help during this study.