Tracing the Lines: Uncovering Grooved Ware Trajectories in Neolithic Scotland

Mike Copper

Known from domestic settlements, pit clusters, tombs and putative ritual sites, the distinctive flat-bottomed, tub-, bucket- and barrel-shaped Grooved Ware pots with their characteristically geometric decoration stand almost as icons of the British and Irish Late Neolithic, yet in significant respects they remain frustratingly enigmatic. On current dating the style appears to have developed in Orkney during the last two centuries of the 4th millennium BC (MacSween et al. 2015; Richards et al. 2016) before spreading rapidly across the whole of Britain and Ireland after 3000 BC, though interestingly not to the continent. Grooved Ware differs strikingly from the preceding regional pottery styles, and understanding how and why it replaced them is of considerable importance if we are to understand other significant changes in artefactual and monumental forms that occur at this time, seemingly uniting previously diverse communities.

A photograph showing a man in a trench excavating pottery sherds with a trowel
Figure 1: An inverted Grooved Ware vessel being excavated at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney (Photo: Mike Copper, with the kind permission of Ray Mitchell and the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology)

The Historic Environment Scotland-funded project Tracing the Lines: Uncovering Grooved Ware Trajectories in Neolithic Scotland, coordinated by Drs Alex Gibson and Mike Copper of the University of Bradford, aims to address a central problem relating to the adoption of Grooved Ware – the nature and timing of its spread beyond Orkney. Did the idea of Grooved Ware spread as a wave of advance from north to south or did it jump from one important settlement locale to the next? How rapidly did this process occur? Did the different sub-styles of Grooved Ware develop in different regions at later points during the Neolithic, and, if so, then when and why? Lying between Orkney and the rest of Britain and Ireland, Scotland represents an ideal region for addressing these issues.

Phase 1 of the project took place in 2017/18 and involved the production of a database of Scottish Grooved Ware and associated dates alongside the identification of radiocarbon datable material in museum collections, primarily sherds bearing carbonised residues as these help to avoid the problem of residuality that arises when dating associated material. Phase 2 (2018/19) involves the dating at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride of the material identified in Phase 1 and the subsequent production of Bayesian models to further refine the dates. In addition to the dating programme, and drawing on extensive ethnographic research that has strongly suggested that potting techniques correlate more closely with social networks and identities than do style and decoration (Gosselain 2000; Livingstone Smith 2016), detailed technological analysis will compare Late Neolithic Grooved Ware with Middle Neolithic Impressed Ware pots found at the same sites to discover whether the arrival of new forms of pot was accompanied by new technologies. Public engagement has also formed a significant part of this project and has included public pot making and firing sessions, presentations at academic conferences and to local societies, and the staging of a significant exhibition on Grooved Ware pottery at the Orkney Museum.

A photograph of a man wearing gloves inspecting a pot decorated with grooved lines in a diamond pattern
Figure 2: Grooved Ware pot from Kintore, Aberdeenshire, being examined by Mike Copper (Photo: Mike Copper, with kind permission of the University of Aberdeen Museum Collections Centre)

The key outputs of the project will include the aforementioned database of Scottish Grooved Ware, presentations at conferences, and both academic and non-academic articles aimed at disseminating the project’s results to as broad an audience as possible. The very large numbers of visitors to Orkney Museum means that the exhibition, in particular, has proven to be a particularly fruitful means of presenting the project to the public. Finally, it is envisaged that the project will feed into a proposed—and long overdue—national conference on Grooved Ware to be held in 2019 or 2020.

Gosselain, O. (2000) Materializing identities: an African perspective. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 7 (3), 187-217.

Livingstone Smith, A. (2016) Pottery and politics: making sense of pottery traditions in Central Africa. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 26 (3), 471-91.

MacSween, A., Hunter, J., Sheridan, A., Bond, J., Bronk Ramsey, C., Reimer, P., Bayliss, A., Griffiths, S. and Whittle, A. (2015) Refining the chronology of the Neolithic settlement at Pool, Sanday, Orkney: implications for the emergence and development of Grooved Ware. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 81, 283-310.

Richards, C., Meirion Jones, A., MacSween, A., Sheridan, A., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P., Bayliss, A., Griffiths, S. and Whittle, A. (2016) Settlement duration and materiality: formal chronological models for the development of Barnhouse, a Grooved Ware settlement in Orkney. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 82, 193-225.





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