6.4.3.1 Ceramics

Since the National ScARF summary (Bronze Age section 4.2) new studies and new finds have become available. The latter include the assemblages from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (Sheridan 2014a; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW) and from Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 (MHG56078; Sheridan in Hatherley & Murray 2021). Sheridan’s pottery reports in the latter discuss both regional and broader comparanda as well as the networks of contacts in which the makers of this pottery participated. Moreover, Hoole’s (et al 2017) ‘Ava’ project, which re-examined old material from Caithness, includes a discussion of the Beaker pottery of the northern tip of the Scottish mainland (Sheridan 2017a; Case Study Ava Bronze Age Burial). Much of the Bronze Age pottery from the Highlands comes from funerary contexts but non-funerary finds are also known as discussed below. Antiquarian accounts mentioning urns should be treated with care, as the term was used for Beakers and Food Vessels as well as for cinerary urns. Datasheet 6.4 shows finds of Chalcolithic and Bronze Age pottery in the Highlands.

Dating of the pottery is key. A large number of radiocarbon dates were obtained for the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works site to help better date the pottery from that site (Fraser 2014). This work, alongside radiocarbon dating work for the Beakers and Bodies Project (Curtis and Wilkin 2019; ScARF Case Study: The Beakers and Bodies Project ) – subsequently integrated into the Beaker People Project with its new dates (Parker Pearson et al 2019) – and other dating work for National Museums Scotland (including on calcined human remains probably associated with a Food Vessel and a second vessel from Ord North passage tomb (Sheridan 2005)), sheds new light on the chronology of Chalcolithic and Bronze Age pottery in this region. The results of the Beakers and Bodies Project and the Beaker People Project also serve to set the chronology of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age pottery in Scotland within its broader national context. This work goes some way to addressing the need for more dates for Beakers, Food Vessels and cinerary urns in the Highland Region (Sheridan (2007a).

Two unpublished PhD theses that are pertinent to the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age pottery of the Highland Region have been completed since the ScARF Bronze Age report was published. Owain Scholma-Mason’s (2018) thesis deals with Beaker pottery in northern Scotland while Marta Innes’s deals with Food Vessel pottery across Scotland (Innes 2020). Both studies highlight the available data and potential for further analysis.

Grooved Ware

The ScARF Bronze Age Panel noted that there were generally few dated sites with Grooved Ware pottery that have allowed researchers to determine whether, or for how long, this other style of pottery continued to be used after the first appearance of Beaker pottery in Scotland. Since that report was published, the Tracing the Lines project has helped to clarify the currency of Grooved Ware pottery in Scotland south of Orkney (Copper et al 2018; 2019; forthcoming; ScARF Case Study: Tracing the Lines) and has produced a date for the Grooved Ware from Stoneyfield, Raigmore (Copper et al 2018, 223). While this project revealed a couple of post-2450 BC cases of Grooved Ware use in Scotland, the findspots in question do not lie in the Highland Region, and the Raigmore date belongs to 3000–2901 BC (ibid). It therefore remains unclear whether Grooved Ware – which is not common in the Highland Region in any case – continued to be used in this part of Scotland after Beaker pottery appeared. See Chapter 5.4 for more on this ceramic tradition.

Beaker Pottery

Various typochronologies for Beaker pottery (Map 6.4; Datasheet 6.4) in Britain have been proposed over the years (eg Clarke 1970; for northeast Scotland see Shepherd 1986) but the most influential has been that of Needham (2005). Needham proposed three phases in the Beaker ceramic tradition: an early phase, where Beakers show the strongest links to continental Beakers; a ‘fission horizon’, probably during the period from 3000 BC to 2201BC, where styles diversify as Beaker use proliferated; and a late phase, where the use of Beaker pottery declines. See also Needham (2012) for a discussion of early Beakers and see Curtis and Wilkin (2019) for a proposed scheme for Beakers in northeast Scotland. The Beakers and Bodies Project (Curtis and Wilkin 2019) and the Beaker People Project (Parker Pearson et al 2019, 174) have added numerous new dates as well (for details of dates see Table 6.6 below; Case study Bronze Age Beaker Pottery in the Highlands).

The Beakers found in the Highland Region include some of the earliest found in Britain. The example with incised herringbone decoration that was found beneath a low cairn at Battle Moss, Caithness (MHG61688; Pannett 2005a; 2005b; Sheridan 2010a), is comparable to a continental style All Over Ornamented Beaker found at Newmill, Perth and Kinross (Watkins and Shepherd 1980), as well as the All Over Cord and All Over Comb Beakers from Kilcoy South chamber tomb (MHG9017; Henshall 1963), all of which are closely comparable to their 25th century BC continental counterparts.

Around 75 Beakers have been recorded from funerary and putatively funerary contexts across the Highlands; most are associated with a contracted skeleton within a short stone cist (Chapter 6.6). Graves with Beakers are less common north of the Great Glen where only 18 funerary examples have been recorded. The majority of Beaker finds within the Highlands occur around the Cromarty Firth, the Beauly Firth and the Moray Firth (Sheridan 2017a; Scholma-Mason 2018; Case Study Bronze Age Beaker Pottery in the Highlands); a relatively recent find is the Beaker pottery associated with the secondary use of the Neolithic Clyde cairn at Cladh Aindreis on the Ardnamurchan peninsula (MHG459; Harris et al 2010).

Tall ceramic vessel with incised decoration on the body and neck.
Beaker pottery from Seafield West, Inverness (Inverness Museum and Art Gallery). ©Michael Sharpe

While they are predominantly recorded from funerary contexts, Beakers have been recorded at several domestic, or at least non-funerary sites (Scholma-Mason 2018), including at Freswick Sands, Caithness (Gibson 1982, 158), Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) and Kilearnan Hill, Sutherland (MHG9986, McIntyre 1998 cairn 12); Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works, Easter Ross (MHG60875; Sheridan 2014), and Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 (MHG56078; Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley and Murray 2021). There are also a small number of probable Beaker sherds from the predominantly Iron Age site at Culduthel (MHG49950; MacSween 2021). Beaker sherds were also found in silts sealing a gully at Rosskeen on the Black Isle (MHG17488: Wordsworth 1993a). From the west coast Beakers are known from Home Farm (Kiltaraglen), Skye (MHG51648; Suddaby 2013), and Cul na Croise and Sanna Bay, Lochaber (MHG13230; MHG14370; Lethbridge 1925; 1927; Gibson 1982). At Kiltaraglen, Skye, two pits containing Beaker sherds were found. One contained two sherds from one Beaker, the other sherds from 47 Beakers (Suddaby 2013). Some of the Beaker pottery found at Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 (MHG56078) is associated with a radiocarbon date of 2340–2140 cal BC.

With regards the Beaker pottery that is found associated with older Neolithic monuments, in some cases it is clear that it accompanied the deposition of human remains, as with a cist at Cladh Aindreis Clyde cairn on the Ardnamurchan peninsula (Harris et al 2010). In others, funerary activity is less easy to infer, and the pottery may instead have been deposited as part of ceremonies involved with the sealing of the monument or as a votive deposit more generally. This non-funerary aspect of Beaker deposition has been explored in an invaluable publication by Wilkin (2016). In some cases, it is hard to tell what the circumstances of deposition would have been. At the dual passage tomb of Embo on the Sutherland coast (MHG11630; Henshall and Ritchie 1995), where there was clear secondary funerary activity during the Early Bronze Age that was in one instance associated with a Food Vessel, it is unclear whether the Beaker pottery had accompanied any burial activity. One dated human bone fragment from the floor of the north chamber produced a date of 2621–2471 cal BC (Sheridan 2006), but this seems slightly too early to have been associated with even early-style Beaker pottery.

SiteAreaDatesCommentsReference
AchavanichC2300–2145 BCCist; ‘Ava’MHG13613; Hoole et al 2017; Case Study Ava Bronze Age burial
ChealamyS2140–1890 BCCistMHG9580; Kinnes et al 1991
Dornoch NurseryS2460–2200 BCCistMHG11738; Ashmore 1989; Sheridan 2004b
FyrishER2345–2145 BCCistMHG8104; Sheridan 2004b
Fodderty FarmER2280–2030 BCCistMHG9046; Parker Pearson et al 2019
Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water WorksER1890–1696 BC 1748–1616 BC
1871–1628 BC  
Sherds and fragments belonging to around 19 Beakers found in pits with cooking debrisMHG60875; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014a; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW
Ness Gap, Fortrose, Black IsleER2290–2050 BCBeakers in pit 182MHG61976; Woodley et al 2020
CulduthelI2280–2020 BCCistMHG3776; Curtis and Wilkin 2012, 253; Case Study Culduthel Iron Age Settlement
CulduthelI2340–2140 BCContext with finds of Beaker sherdsMHG56078; Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley and Murray 2021
Holm MainsI2290–2030 BC 2280–2030 BCCist 1 Cist 2MHG32414; MHG32415 Sheridan 2006
LochendI1950–1750 BCCistMHG3282; Parker Pearson et al 2019
TorbreckI1982–1889 BCCistMHG56812; Kilpatrick 2014
Mains of BalnagowanI2210–1970 BCCistMHG2833; Wilkin et al 2009
DrumnadrochitIAwaiting datesCistEHG4672; Peteranna 2015
Broadford Medical CentreSkye2470–2212 BC 2565–2299 BCCistMHG55638; Birch 2012; Sheridan 2012e; Dates Steven Birch pers comm
Home Farm (Kiltaraglen), PortreeSkye2570–2340 BC 2460–2200 BC 2550–2230 BC 2490–2230 BCTwo pits with sherds from 1 and 47 Beakers respectively. Radiocarbon dates pre-date date of deposition MHG51648; Suddaby 2013
Table 6.6 Radiocarbon-dated contexts from the Highlands with Beaker pottery
All dates cal BC at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Food Vessels

From the 22nd century BC until around the 18th century BC Food Vessels (Map 6.4; Datasheet 6.4) were deposited in graves, thereby overlapping with Beaker funerary pottery (Sheridan 2004b; Parker Pearson et al 2019, 111). They will have fulfilled a similar or identical role to Beakers: containing offerings of food or drink for the deceased. As with Beakers, Food Vessels are predominantly found in funerary contexts accompanying unburnt skeletal remains, usually of a single individual, although some examples are associated with cremated remains (as discussed in Chapter 6.6).

Around 35 of the over 500 Food Vessels in Scotland have been identified in the Highlands (Datasheets 6.1 and 6.4; Scholma-Mason 2018; Innes 2020). The Highland examples occur mainly on the east coast, north of the Dornoch Firth. Interestingly, as far south in Aberdeenshire and Tayside (Curtis and Wilkin 2012; 2019), Food Vessels occur in areas of low Beaker use. They have been associated with both the practice of inhumation and cremation and with all sexes and ages.

Four ceramic vessels with varying decorations and styles on display.
Food Vessels on display at Dunrobin Castle Museum. ©Michael Sharpe

Various terms have been used to describe Food Vessels with a basic distinction made between Bowls and Vases and variants of both, but often there has been inconsistency in the use of this terminology (Wilkin 2013; Innes 2020). As highlighted recently by Innes (2020), the vessels from across the Highlands do not show any strong regional patterning. The surviving example of a Vase Food Vessel from cist 1 at Dirlot (Dalmore) Caithness, is a particularly fine specimen. A strong connection between the Bowl Food Vessel found in the timber plank-built ‘cist’ at Seafield West and Bowl Food Vessels found in Ireland has been noted (Cressey and Sheridan 2003, 63–5, illus 10.2; Case Study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery), and a few other examples of Food Vessels with strong connections to their Irish counterparts have been noted for northeast Scotland (Neil Wilkin pers comm).

Short round ceramic vessel with incised decoration on the exterior.
Food vessel from Seafield West (Inverness Museum and Art Gallery). ©Michael Sharpe

Few graves with Food Vessels from the Highlands have been dated, though recent excavations and new dates have contributed to this growing picture (Table 6.7 below).

SiteAreaDatesCommentsReference
Dirlot (Dalmore), HalkirkC2020-1770 BC
2140–1920
Cist 1. See discussion Parker Pearson et al 2019 on differences in datesMHG39815; Parker Pearson et al 2019
Ord NorthS1923–1564 BC
1740–1520 BC
Reused Neolithic chambered cairn.
Second date on calcined bone and is more reliable
MHG11983; Sharples 1981; Sheridan 2005
Keas Cottage, SpinningdaleS2051–1911 BCCistMHG55420; Arabaolaza 2013
Lairg (Achinduich)S1) After 2185–1900 BC
2) 1945–1520 BC
1) Cairn 1
2) ‘Cremation burial’ Note: further work on Lairg radiocarbon dates in progress
MHG20135; McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 84ff, 119[SA24] 
Ness Gap, Fortrose, Black IsleER2440–2130 BCCist 030. Date obtained from oak charcoal which was older than the actual date of the cistMHG54308; Woodley et al 2020
Raigmore (Stoneyfield)IOld dateCist 1. Old date, with too great a standard deviation to be meaningfulMHG45834; Simpson 1996a; Case study Raigmore/Stoneyfield
ArmadaleSkye2030–1770 BC
1960–1750 BC
Several cists with Food VesselsMHG60879; Peteranna 2011b; Sheridan 2011a; Kruse and Peteranna 2016; Case study Armadale Cist burial
Table 6.7 Dated graves with Food Vessels
All dates cal BC at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Cinerary Urns

In Scotland in general, the practice of burying cremated remains in cinerary urns (Map 6.4; Datasheet 6.4) seems to have begun around the 22nd century BC (Sheridan 2007a), with the earliest type of urn being the Vase Urn (previously called ‘Food Vessel Urn’, see Cowie 1978). Vase Urns belong to the Food Vessel ceramic tradition and dated examples in Scotland range between c 2100 BC and c 1850 BC. Just one example of a Vase Urn is known from the Highland Region, and it is of the Encrusted variety; it was found at Dalmore, Easter Ross (site 1, cist 8: Cowie 1978, 133 [ROS 1], figs 27, 36, no. 100), and constitutes a northerly outlier to the distribution of this urn type.

The Highland Region also lies to the north of the main distribution of Collared Urns – the next type of urn to appear in Britain – with only two examples listed in Ian Longworth’s corpus of this urn type (Longworth 1984, fig 42): one was found at Auldearn, Nairn, and the other at Loth, Sutherland (ibid, 305, Nos 1905–6). By analogy with dated Collared Urns elsewhere in Scotland, these are likely to date to between c 1950 BC and c 1600 BC (Sheridan 2007a).

As with Vase and Collared Urns, the Highland Region lies to the north of – or rather, at the northernmost point of – the distribution of Cordoned Urns. The overall currency of this urn type is c 1850 to c 1500 BC. Several Cordoned Urns have been found since 2010 and are listed below; their dates fall within this overall currency. The range of shapes represented by these urns are consistent with ‘style drift’ over time. While there are ‘classic’ examples, for example from Kinsteary, Nairn (Robertson 1953), and Ness Gap, Fortrose (urn 7 and 6: MHG54308; Woodley et al 2020), as well as the urn from Achinduich Farm, Lairg (MHG12804; McCullagh 2011) which arguably stretches the definition, it would probably be wiser to regard these as late, localised variants of the tradition.

In addition to those kinds of urn, Bipartite Urns have also been found in the Highlands at Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (Sheridan 2014), Kingsteps, Lochloy, Nairn (Farrell 2004), and possibly also at Ness Gap, Fortrose. At Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works, the Bipartite Urn must have been damaged prior to its deposition, and a large sherd from another pot was inserted in its interior to fill the gap (Sheridan 2014).

Ceramic vessel with a piece missing and cracks with three beads and a metal awl placed in front of the pot.
Urn, beads and awl from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works. ©Lynn Fraser

Not all the cinerary urns in the Highland Region fit neatly within these categories; local variants and local styles of urn are known. The ‘Cordoned Urn’ from Achinduich Farm, Sutherland (MHG12804; McCullagh 2011), for example, while sharing some features with Cordoned Urns, is far from a typical example and may well constitute ‘style drift’ from the canon. The same can be said for pot V6 from Ness Gap, Fortrose (MHG54308; Woodley et al 2020). Similarly, the urn from Battle Moss, Caithness (MHG61688; Sheridan 2010a), while comparable to (but not a close match for) Middle and Late Bronze Age ‘Bucket Urns’, may constitute a local urn type. The associated cremated human bone has been dated to 1662–1451 cal BC (Table 6.8). Moreover, the urn from Balnalick, Glen Urquhart (MHG2673; Grant 1888, fig 1), which contained a bronze razor, does not fit into the conventional range of Scottish cinerary urn types. From the style of the razor (ibid, fig 2) this urn is likely to date to the second quarter of the second millennium.

Finally, as for the poorly-preserved vessel containing calcined human remains which was found just outside the entrance to the passage tomb at Tulach an t’Sionnaich (MHG926): the small size and thin wall of this pot (just c 150mm at its broadest girth, and 7mm thick) indicates that this was not a cinerary urn in the same sense as an Encrusted, Collared, Cordoned, Bipartite or local Urns. Indeed, given the date of the associated cremated remains, 2200–1970 cal BC (Sheridan 2005), it seems more likely that the pot had been a Food Vessel, or even perhaps a late Beaker.

SiteAreaDatesCommentsReference
Battle MossC1662–1451 BCUrn with possible Bucket Urn affinities (or else simply a local urn style) MHG61688; Sheridan 2010a; Pannett 2005a; 2005b
Auchinduich, LairgS1620–1450 BC
1690–1510 BC
Pit containing late Cordoned Urn, inside penannular ditched enclosureMHG12804; McCullagh 2011
Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water WorksER1863–1626 BC
1876–1638 BC
Four cinerary urns, of which two are possibly Cordoned; one is Bipartite; and one is Bipartite or CordonedMHG60875; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014; Case study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW
Ness Gap, Fortrose, Black IsleER1750–1540 BC
1690–1500 BC
1630–1450 BC 1630–1450 BC
Pits containing inurned cremated remains: two Cordoned Urns, one similar to Cordoned Urn, two urns with cordons but overall shape cannot be determinedMHG54308; Woodley et al 2020
Raigmore (Stoneyfield)I1741–1518 BCCordoned Urn. Date is from Sheridan 2007aMHG45834; Simpson 1996a; Sheridan 2007a; Case study Raigmore/Stoneyfield
Lochloy (Kingsteps), NairnN1890–1622 BC 1889–1639 BCBipartite Urn, buried upright in pit. 1st date from charcoal from fill around urn; 2nd date from calcined boneEHG1049; Farrell 2004; Case study Lochloy
Table 6.8 Dated finds of cinerary urns in the Highlands
All dates cal BC at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Middle and Late Bronze Age Pottery from Non-Funerary Contexts

Several settlement sites in the Highland Region have produced the fairly coarse, flat-based, mostly undecorated tub- and bucket-shaped pottery that has tended to be lumped together in the wider term ‘Flat-rimmed ware’. The term is itself a misnomer, since rim shapes vary and include bevelled and clubbed variants. Findspots include Lairg (MacSween and Dixon 1998), Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 (MHG56078; Sheridan 2010b), Kilearnan Hill, Strath of Kildonan (MHG9986, McIntyre 1998), Connagill (MHG61678; Dagg 2014), Upper Suisgill (MHG9345; Barclay 1985) and Balmakeith Industrial Estate, Nairn (MHG54304; McNicol 2011). Further examples will no doubt emerge from excavations in Inverness, including at the University of Highlands and Islands campus, and several sites on Skye and Wester Ross hold potential (Chapter 6.3).

Ceramic vessel with raised bands decorating the body.
Cordoned cinerary urn from Learable, Strath of Kildonan. ©Michael Sharpe

Well-dated finds of Middle and Late Bronze Age pottery are still relatively scarce (ScARF Bronze Age section 4.2, Beverley Ballin Smith pers comm), and it would be useful to target some settlement sites from the Highland Region for larger scale excavation to provide some context. Nevertheless, sufficient information exists to allow for some unpicking of the ‘flat-rimmed ware’ term into some regional and chronological patterning, and dates are expected for the excavated Inverness material. The narrow-based, slightly trunconic cooking jar from Balmakeith Industrial Estate, Nairn, reminiscent of V154 from Dyke 1 at Lairg (MacSween and Dixon 1998, fig 90), has been dated from burnt-on organic material encrusted on its interior to 1000–830 cal BC (MHG54304; McNicol 2011).

Drawing of a fragmented ceramic vessel with several sherds missing.
Cooking jar from Balmakeith, Nairn. ©McNicol 2011; Illus 12

The National ScARF Bronze Age section 4.2 highlighted the need for more analysis of residues in pots; it would be useful for the sparse existing data to be pulled together for Highland examples and for further analyses to be undertaken. A Beaker in a burial pit from recent excavations at Drumnadrochit was found to contain three different lipids (Mary Peteranna pers comm).

Fired Clay Beads

Not all ceramic material found has been in the form of vessels. At Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works pit F10 three fired clay beads were found: one oblate, two fusiform. They are associated with calcined human remains and a copper alloy awl in a Bipartite Urn (MHG60875; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014a). The beads and the awl had passed through the funeral pyre with the deceased. A fragment of calcined bone was dated to 1876–1638 cal BC.


Leave a Reply