Early Neolithic

The earliest Neolithic pottery in Scotland belongs to two Continental traditions that were introduced by immigrant farmers, but only one of these is currently definitely attested in Highland Region. The first is the late Castellic tradition from Brittany, as attested at a simple passage tomb at Achnacreebeag, Argyll and Bute (Ritchie 1970; Sheridan 2016). While the currency of late Castellic pottery in Brittany extends from c 4300 BC to c 3900 BC, its appearance in Scotland is suspected to have occurred around 4000 BC. No example of late Castellic pottery has been found in the Highlands, but monuments similar to Achnacreebeag exist here so it may be that sherds of this tradition await discovery. There are a handful of intriguing sherds of fine, thin, undecorated pottery with rounded and gently flattened rims found during Stephanie Piper’s excavations at Uamh Mhor, Cove in Wester Ross (Piper et al 2019; Piper forthcoming). Other sherds not yet published may be candidates for pottery within this tradition. Even though they were found in a Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age context, they may be residual from an earlier phase of activity dated to 3794–3655 cal BC.

The second is a Chasséo-Michelsberg regional grouping known in Britain and Ireland as the Carinated Bowl (‘CB’) tradition (Sheridan 2007a; 2016). This seems to have been introduced by farmers from Nord-Pas de Calais in northern France, appearing in south-east England around the 41st century BC. The earliest dated examples in Scotland date to the 39th century BC. Contrary to what some scholars have argued (Whittle et al 2011), this does not necessarily mean that its use must have spread northwards from southeast England. Rather, as argued elsewhere, the immigration process from northern France could have been diasporic, with some groups making a longer sea journey up the east coast of Britain, and this migration could have involved multiple movements that occurred over the course of several generations (eg Sheridan 2010a; 2016).

The earliest kind of CB pottery – Sheridan’s ‘traditional CB’, which is closest to its Continental precursors in design and manufacturing technique – is attested in Highland Region at two sites in Inverness: at Canal Park Rugby Pitches, Bught Road,Torvean (Peteranna and Williamsen 2017) and at Culduthel (MacSween in Hatherley and Murray 2021). Radiocarbon dates are awaited for the Torvean site, and the relevant Culduthel contexts produced no radiocarbon dates, but a date somewhere between c 3900 BC and c 3700 BC may be expected for this pottery. There may indeed be further examples of traditional CB pottery lurking in assemblages from as yet unpublished developer-funded excavations in the Inverness area.

Figure 5.6: Sherds of traditional Carinated Bowl pottery from Canal Park Rugby Pitches, Bught Road, Torvean, Inverness. ©AOC Archaeology
Figure 5.7: Traditional Carinated Bowl pottery from Culduthel (Phase 5), Inverness. From MacSween in Hatherley and Murray 2021. ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd

The characteristics of traditional CB pottery in general include simple, rounded rims, usually everted, gentle carinations. They are often thin-walled and carefully made vessels, mostly with sparse lithic inclusions (often of crushed granitic stone), of ‘open’ and ‘neutral’ forms, ie the rim diameter exceeds or is roughly the same as the widest point of the vessel. All vessels are round based. The surfaces sometimes have been carefully smoothed, buffed to a low sheen or polished to a high sheen; fingertip fluting is sometimes present as a decorative surface finish on traditional CB pottery. As explained elsewhere (Sheridan 2007a; 2016), the repertoire includes uncarinated vessel forms and a range of wall thicknesses and fabrics.

The distribution of known traditional CB pottery, and of all other Neolithic pottery in the Highland Region, is shown in Map 5.3, and Datasheet 5.3 offers an inventory for the Region, complete with Highland HER and Canmore reference numbers. Note that some of the entries in that Datasheet need to be verified, as the pottery identifications were not made by a Neolithic pottery specialist. There are several finds of traditional CB pottery in and around Aberdeenshire, which seems to have been a favoured area for the pioneering farming groups; it may well be that Inverness was another.

Map 5.3: Distribution of Neolithic pottery in the Highlands

‘Modified CB’ pottery is the term used to describe subsequent developments in the CB ceramic tradition as its use was perpetuated over many successive generations of potters. There are several findspots of modified CB pottery in Highland Region and its currency extended into the late 4th millennium BC. As noted for Scotland as a whole (Sheridan 2007a; 2016) and indeed beyond, this process of stylistic and technical ‘style drift’ away from the ‘traditional CB’ canon occurred at different speeds and in different ways across different areas, with Aberdeenshire witnessing a very early (c 3800 BC) emergence of modified CB at the Balbridie ‘hall’. The Balbridie assemblage includes two pots that can be regarded as the forerunner of a distinctive type of decorated bipartite bowl known as the ‘Unstan bowl’: Sheridan 2016. This divergence in the developmental trajectory of modified CB pottery can be seen within Highland Region.

Early examples of modified CB pottery, dating to before c 3600 BC, comprise the assemblages from Camster Long, Caithness from before the long mound activity and probably before the passage tomb construction (MHG1809) and Tulloch of Assery B, Caithness where it pre-dates the construction of the passage tomb (MHG932). It may be that pottery of this type, now lost, was also found at Camster Round (MHG1816), where it was discovered “three or four inches under the surface of the [chamber] floor”: Joseph Anderson described it as “decidedly well made pottery…the thinnest pottery I have seen from these cairns” (Anderson 1866a, 248–9).

Samples of modified CB pottery from pre-cairn contexts at Camster Long and Tulloch of Assery B, Caithness. From Davidson and Henshall 1991. ©Audrey Henshall

This pottery deviates in just minor respects from traditional CB pottery. Carinations can be more pointed and shoulder-like, lugs are occasionally present, the range of rim forms can include slightly heavier and/or inturned variants and slightly different vessel forms are present. Fluting and ripple-burnishing, both features known from the traditional CB canon, continue, as do other aspects of the tradition. These are features that Henshall used to define her ‘North-East style’ of this pottery tradition (Henshall 1983). Masters obtained three radiocarbon dates from bulk charcoal samples from under the long cairn, and a fourth from a burnt patch in the south-west forecourt at Camster Long (Masters 1997). While two of these dates have too high a standard deviation to be useful, the other two calibrated results gave dates of 3953‒3541 cal BC and 3766‒3640 cal BC (GU-1707–8; see Datasheet 2.1 for full details). The Camster Long finds are available for further study, so it should be possible to obtain further dates. A terminus ante quem for the Tulloch of Assery B assemblage, 3766–3642 cal BC at 95.4% (SUERC-68634) has recently been provided by dating a sample of human bone from the passage tomb interior (Armit et al 2015, 195; Sheridan and Schulting 2020, fig. 18.4).

The same kind of early modified CB pottery has been found at Vestra Fiold in Orkney (Richards et al 2013, fig. 6.21). The site is undated, but it pre-dates the construction of a chambered long cairn. This is is one of many pieces of evidence linking the Neolithic of the Highland Region with that of Orkney. Taken together, this evidence for early modified CB pottery in the Highland Region and Orkney suggests a fairly rapid northward expansion of farming groups from their initial area of settlement in and around Inverness.

A slightly later assemblage of modified CB pottery has recently been excavated from a settlement site at Tornagrain, Morayston, a few kilometres northeast of Inverness (EHG5445; (Sheridan 2020b). Comprising sherds from 73 or 74 bowls and jars, it consists of uncarinated forms including baggy lugged jars, plus carinated and shouldered bowls. The vessels are generally thicker-walled and less carefully formed and finished than traditional CB pots, although their stylistic ancestry in the CB tradition is clear. The radiocarbon dating evidence places this assemblage in the 3700 to 3500 BC bracket, roughly contemporary with a much smaller assemblage of sherds of three round-based pots of similar wall thickness found at Ness Gap, Fortrose (Woodley et al 2020). It also makes it contemporary with the assemblage of modified CB pottery found at Lewiston, Drumadrochit, which is dated, by Bayesian modelling of organic material from pits, to 3662–3543 cal BC (Williamson et al 2019, 69; EHG5558).

Examples of modified CB pottery from Tornagrain. From Sheridan 2020b; drawings by Marion O’Neil. ©Highland Archaeology Services

Sherds of traditional CB pottery were found during Fraser Hunter’s excavations at Belladrum, Inverness-shire in 2014 (Hunter 2014a; MHG56866). This small assemblage is yet to be dated, but to judge from the style of the pottery, it most likely dates to the 38th century or thereabouts.

A further small assemblage, found at Ness Gap, Fortrose on the Black Isle (MHG59429) is likely to date to 3700–3530 cal BC, and is highly likely to be of CB tradition (Woodley et al 2020, 11–12). However, since only nine fairly featureless sherds from three pots were found, it is impossible to tell whether the pottery was of ‘traditional’ or ‘modified’ CB type.

It is not known whether the modified CB pottery found in the chamber tomb at Rubha’ an Dùnain, Skye (MHG4901; Henshall 1972, 310) dates to before c 3600 BC, but it is presented in the next section (, with the proviso that it may actually belong within this section. The same is true of the modified CB pottery found in the Clyde cairn at Cladh Aindreis on the Ardnamurchan peninsula (MHG459; identified by Sheridan).

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