What is Tracing the Lines?

Tracing the Lines: Uncovering Grooved Ware Trajectories in Neolithic Scotland is a one-year Historic Environment Scotland-funded project headed by Dr Alex Gibson and Dr Mike Copper at the University of Bradford with the support of specialists at HES and National Museums Scotland.  The project addresses the issue of the dating of Grooved Ware – the iconic pottery style of the Late Neolithic period – that is found across Britain and Ireland.

Replica Grooved Ware pots in the Durrington Walls sub-style, made by the potter Graham Taylor

In the final centuries of the 4th millennium BC significant social changes began to occur in the islands of Orkney off the north coast of Scotland. These included the development of nucleated settlements such as the famous sites of Skara Brae and Barnhouse and the early phases of the what was to become the dramatic stone-built enclosure of the Ness of Brodgar. Shortly afterwards, new artefacts and monumental forms such as stone circles and large passage tomb appeared, the latter closely resembling earlier examples known from the Boyne valley in Ireland and perhaps indicating increasing interaction between formerly isolated regional centres. Significantly, the late 4th millennium sees the development of a new form of pottery, known as Grooved Ware, the earliest dated examples of which are currently from Orkney.

Unlike most preceding styles of pottery in Britain and Ireland, Grooved Ware is flat bottomed, making it suitable for standing on a flat surface such as a table. Its characteristic grooved decorative motifs would also have made it stand out, and there is evidence that some pots were coloured. Grooved Ware comes in many sizes, including some very large vessels, and varies from coarse and plain to very fine and delicately decorated. Different sub-styles of Grooved Ware have been recognised, although regionality is not strongly pronounced outside of Orkney. There is some evidence for development through time within some of the sub-styles.

Part of a small Grooved Ware pot from An Doirlinn in the Outer Hebrides with notched rim and carefully impressed and incised internal and external decoration

Although it is possible that earlier dates will emerge in the future, the earliest Grooved Ware outside Orkney currently postdates 3000 BC (the Late Neolithic period), yet the style appears to have spread rapidly across the whole of Britain and Ireland, replacing pre-existing local styles. Indeed, the sharing of new monumental and artefactual forms across the islands contrasts strongly with the regionality that preceded this period. Explaining how and why this happened is of considerable interest to archaeologists and prehistorians, and it is this issue that Tracing the Lines ultimately aims to address.

The project hopes to refine the dating of Grooved Ware across Scotland outwith Orkney through the identification and subsequent radiocarbon dating of preserved organic materials found on, or in close association with, Grooved Ware. An improved body of radiocarbon dates will allow researchers to consider questions such as whether Grooved Ware spread in a wave-like fashion or by jumping between regional centres, whether the earliest Grooved Ware is associated with certain types of site in particular, and whether there is evidence for stylistic development through time. Given its importance to our understandings of the Late Neolithic, Grooved Ware remains relatively poorly understood, and it is hoped that this project will go some way towards rectifying this situation.