6.5.1 Pottery Manufacture and Production

As in the rest of Britain, the appearance of Beaker pottery marks the introduction of a new tradition of pottery making that differed from the indigenous Late Neolithic tradition of Grooved Ware stylistically and technically. The contrast with Grooved Ware is such that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that skilled potters were among the immigrant ‘Beaker People’. The earliest continental-style Beakers are thin-walled and carefully made, where the interior of the pot was scraped to thin the walls. The fabric is usually fine with small inclusions; grog (crushed pot) is occasionally present. The surfaces of the pots were carefully smoothed, and some pots may have been covered in a thin slip prior to decoration. The techniques of decoration are cord- and comb-impression, incision, and fingernail or thumbnail impression. In several cases, the pots have been fired to an even reddish-brown colour. Firing conditions may well have been controlled, but there is no evidence for the use of any kiln-like structure for firing; careful firing on an open bonfire could have produced the observed results. While there is stylistic and technical consistency among early Beakers, insufficient petrological or mineralogical research has been undertaken to determine whether they were produced from local clays or made further away and brought into an area. Similarly, it is unclear whether specialist potters existed, or whether the requisite level of skill was passed on within communities as part of everyday activities. The existence of specialist potters in each community is possible. Over time, the quality of Beaker production seems to have become more variable, and slightly thicker-walled Beakers were made.

Food Vessels belong to a different ceramic tradition with origins in both Ireland and Yorkshire; they may well reflect the desire to create a style that was new and distinct from Beaker pottery, even though the vessels were used in the same way. Thicker-walled than early Beakers, some Food Vessels were nevertheless carefully and well made, as exemplified by the surviving Vase Food Vessel from Dirlot (Dalmore), Halkirk. The close similarity of the Seafield West Bowl Food Vessel to some Irish bipartite Bowl Food Vessels makes it clear that the maker of the object from Seafield West was familiar with Irish pots; whether the potter was from Ireland cannot, however, be determined (Case Study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery). As with early Beakers, it remains a moot point whether there were specialist potters. This is a distinct possibility, however, as is suggested by the existence elsewhere in Scotland of a ‘pair’ of pots sharing very specific design features from two different sites: North Mains, Perth and Kinross, and Cowdenhill, West Lothian (Cowie 1983, 255, fig 29; Clarke et al 1985, fig 5.40), as well as some particularly fine Food Vessels, such as those at Glebe Cairn and Dunchraigaig in Kilmartin Glen (Clarke et al 1985, fig 5.27, fig 5.41).

Very little research has been undertaken to determine the source of the raw materials used for pottery production in the Highland Region. At Lairg (ScARF Case Study The Lairg Project), Dixon observed that the talc that was used as a filler in some of the pottery may have come from a source some 30km away (Macsween and Dixon 1998, 142). The appearance of this material in the assemblage corresponds to a stylistic change in vessel forms, and other similar vessels with the same inclusions elsewhere are known from Upper Suisgill (MHG9345) and Kilearnan Hill (MHG9986) in Sutherland, Delny, Easter Ross (MHG17494), and also further afield in other assemblages from eastern Scotland (ScARF Bronze Age section 4.2; MacSween and Dixon 1998). It would be useful to know whether the growing corpus of pottery from recent excavations around Inverness also includes similar vessels. Whether this widespread use of a specific filler material relates to a change in the scale and organisation of pottery production, as opposed to a conscious choice made by potters who were in contact with each other, remains to be seen.

A programme of clay sourcing was undertaken by Sahlén for the Feats of Clay community project, which set out to investigate the background of the clay moulds used for manufacturing Late Bronze Age metal sickles and other tools found at Bellfield, North Kessock (MHG58023; Clark et al 2017; Case Study Feats of Clay Project). It concluded that several local sources had been exploited, with different clays used for moulds and daub.

Clay sampling at Munlochy Bay. ©Graham Clark

Leave a Reply