Early to Middle Neolithic

The modified CB tradition persisted in use over much of this period, developing in diverse ways in different parts of the Region. Over the course of these centuries various kinds of decoration appeared – some incised, some impressed, some applied or moulded, and many attesting to the sharing of designs with other potters outside Highland Region. The repertoire of vessel forms also changed, moving further away from the range of forms seen in traditional CB pottery. The term ‘Impressed Ware’ has traditionally been used to describe assemblages, definitely or probably dating to c. 3300–c. 2900 BC, featuring pottery decorated with impressions made in various ways (including finger- or thumbnail impressions), but in reality there is no simple division or clear cut-off point between ‘modified CB’ and ‘Impressed Ware’ assemblages. Moreover, what has been described as ‘Impressed Ware’ covers a variety of decorative motifs and designs (including some made by incision), and ‘Impressed Ware’ assemblages also include undecorated vessels. In short, the story of ceramic developments during these centuries cannot be reduced to the simple replacement of one tradition by another; it is more complicated than that. After all, Neolithic potters did not create their vessels to fit within 21st century concerns with ceramic typology! A snapshot of developments in different parts of Highland Region is offered here.

Southeast Highland Region

The assemblage of modified CB pottery found during Phases 7 and 8 of excavations at Culduthel, and radiocarbon-dated to between c. 3600/3500 BC and c. 3300 BC (Sheridan 2010b and in Hatherley forthcoming; MHG51630), shows a greater departure from the traditional CB canon than that shown by the pre-3600 BC modified CB assemblages described above. Among the novelties is a bowl with a heavy collared rim, tall upright neck and shallow belly, decorated with fingertip fluting on its rim and neck (Fig. 5.10). This constitutes a stylistic development of a particular vessel form known from the traditional CB repertoire. Comparanda exist in western Scotland (with a less close comparandum from Geirisclett, N. Uist in the Outer Hebrides), suggesting connections and design sharing between potters at either end of the Great Glen (Sheridan 2016, fig. 4). The western Scottish examples were labelled by Audrey Henshall as ‘Achnacree bowls’ (Henshall 1972, 100–02) after one example found in a passage tomb at Achnacree, Argyll and Bute. The Culduthel example comes from a context radiocarbon-dated to 4780±30 BP (SUERC-20229, 3641–3519 cal BC [and note that details of this date were incorrectly cited in Sheridan 2016]).

Figure 5.10: ‘Achnacree bowl’ from Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8), and distribution of comparanda. Pot drawing from Sheridan 2010b; © Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd; map from Sheridan 2016, © Alison Sheridan

Also present in the Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 assemblage are shallow-bellied carinated bowls with incised and/or impressed (including ‘stab-and-drag’) panelled decoration on their straight, upright or slightly inturned necks (Fig. 5.11). A further example of this kind of pot was found during excavations relating to the Inverness West Link Road, probably at the Canal Park site, Torvean, in September 2016 (Fig. 5.12; cf. Peteranna 2016). These vessels are important because they form part of the story of the development of ‘Unstan bowls’, as discussed elsewhere (Sheridan 2016, 194 and fig. 3). Essentially, Unstan bowls did not originate in Orkney, but in northeast Scotland, where ‘prototypes’ dating as early as the 38th century BC have been found in the early modified CB assemblage at Balbridie ‘hall’, Aberdeenshire. The Culduthel (and Canal Park or Ness-side) vessels are mid-way in design between the Balbridie vessels and more ‘classic’ Unstan bowls, examples of which have been found further north in Highland Region at passage tombs at Ord North, Sutherland (Fig. 5.13.1; Henshall and Ritchie 1995, fig. 22; MHG11983) and Garrywhin (Cairn of Get), Caithness (Fig. 5.13.2; Davidson and Henshall 1991, fig. 19, no. 4; MHG2210), as well as in Orkney and the Outer Hebrides (Sheridan 2016, fig. 3). There is also an example of one of these more ‘classic’ Unstan bowls from the 2016 Inverness West Link road excavations (probably at the Canal Park site, 2016): it is a broad, shallow-bellied pot with a short, upright neck (Fig. 5.13.3).

Figure 5.11: Examples of ‘proto-Unstan’ bowls from Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8), Inverness. From Sheridan 2010b. ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
Figure 5.12: Bowl, similar to the Culduthel ‘proto-Unstan’ bowls, from the Inverness West Link Road excavations at Canal Park, Torvean. ©AOC Archaeology
Figure 5.13: ‘Classic’ ‘Unstan’ bowls: 1. Ord North, Sutherland; 2. Garrywhin (Cairn of Get), Caithness; 3. Probable example from Canal Park, Inverness. (1) After Henshall and Ritchie 1995; (2) after and Davidson and Henshall 1991, ©Audrey Henshall; (3) ©AOC Archaeology

Other finds of modified CB pottery in this part of Highland Region include the small uncarinated cup found at the Inverness Flood Relief site just 200 m from Culduthel (Sheridan 2011; MHG55) and the undecorated carinated and uncarinated bowls, one with a heavy rim, found at Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (Sheridan 2014a; MHG60873). The latter date to between c. 3650 BC and c. 3350 BC, and the former is also likely to belong to that date bracket. A deep-bellied shouldered jar with incised diagonal lines on its neck (Fig. 5.14), found at Greenside Farm, Rosemarkie (and incorrectly identified as ‘Grooved Ware’: Peteranna and Kennedy 2018, plate 3; EHG5384), might also date to roughly the same period, although it is unclear whether radiocarbon dating has been undertaken.

Figure 5.14: Decorated shouldered jar from Greenside Farmhouse, Rosemarkie, Easter Ross. From Peteranna and Kennedy 2018. ©AOC Archaeology

The assemblage of modified CB pottery found at the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (Johnson 2012; EHG3271) is idiosyncratic, consisting mostly of fairly coarse uncarinated vessels but including one large bulbous jar (P51) with a row of nested incised vertical arcs just below the rim (Fig. 5.15). The pit in which the sherds of this pot were found has been radiocarbon-dated to 3623–3366 cal BC. Overall, 15 radiocarbon dates on short-lived material (hazelnut shells, cereal grains and charcoal from short-lived species) confirm that this settlement activity belongs to the second half of the fourth millennium, possibly with two episodes, one around the time when Pot P51 was deposited and the other between c. 3350 BC and c. 3000 BC (Fig. 5.15). 

It remains to be seen how much modified CB pottery has been found in the excavations on the line of the Inverness West Link Road in addition to the aforementioned pots that were probably found at the Canal Park site. (No information has yet been released on the Neolithic pottery found during the 2019 excavations at the Torvean golf course, for example, and only minimal information has been released about the finds from Canal Park and Ness-side.)

Figure 5.15: Examples of modified CB/Middle Neolithic pottery from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site, with associated radiocarbon dates shown. From Johnson 2012. ©NG Archaeological Services

It also remains to be seen whether the sherds of Neolithic pottery that were found in a pit at Kilcoy, Ross-shire, along with calcined bone and a leaf-shaped arrowhead, during work connected with construction of the Inverness to Dingwall gas pipeline (MHG8342) belong to the CB tradition and date to between c. 3600 BC and c. 3300 BC, or earlier.

The pottery from this part of Highland Region that definitely or probably dates to c. 3300–2900 BC has mostly been described as ‘Impressed Ware’ (although the Milton of Leys assemblage has been published as ‘Grooved Ware’ [MacSween 2003; MHG54230]; see below for discussion). As with Impressed Ware assemblages elsewhere in Scotland, impression is not the only decorative technique represented, and there are also undecorated vessels in the repertoire. The assemblages in question are from Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 (MHG51630; Fig. 5.16); Culduthel Phase 9 ([Lochrie, not named as author, in] Van Wessel 2012); Inverness Flood Relief Works (Sheridan 2011, plate 6, Pot 3); possibly Bellfield Farm, North Kessock (Lochrie 2009, 13); Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (Fig. 5.17; Sheridan 2014a, 21–2); Kinbeachie, Culbokie (MacSween 2001; MHG58909) and Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (Johnson 2012; EHG3271). A single vessel with impressed decoration found in the passage tomb of Carn Glas, Kilcoy, could conceivably be included in this category (Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 146; MHG9014). It remains to be seen whether further examples exist among the finds from the recent Inverness West Link Road excavations.

Figure 5.16: Impressed Ware jar from Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8). From Sheridan 2010b; © Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
Figure 5.17: Impressed Ware from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works, Easter Ross. From Sheridan 2014a; © Ross and Cromarty Archaeological Services

The assemblages vary in vessel form, type of impressed decoration and style of decoration, although a common feature is that decoration is usually restricted to the upper part of the body, and often occurs on the top of the flattish, sometimes expanded rim (Fig. 18). Undecorated pots are present in some of these assemblages, including Culduthel Phases 7 and 8 where one such pot (P34) has a narrow, flattish base (Fig. 5.19). Vessel forms are mostly deep-bellied jars. Of note is the presence of a pot of the ‘Fengate Ware’ style of Impressed Ware pottery from Inverness Flood Relief Works (Fig. 5.20; Sheridan 2011, Pot 3); this pottery style is widespread in England and Wales, but uncommon in Scotland.

Figure 5.18: Impressed Ware from Kinbeachie, Easter Ross: After Barclay et al 2001; © Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Sylvia Stevenson
Figure 5.19: Undecorated Middle Neolithic jar with narrow flattish base from ‘Impressed Ware’ assemblage at Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8), Inverness. From Sheridan 2010b; ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
Figure 5.20: Large sherd from just below the rim of a of ‘Fengate Ware’ pot found at the Inverness Flood Relief Works. From Sheridan 2011, ©RoCAS

These assemblages differ from Impressed Ware further south in Scotland in lacking the heavy rims and often markedly trunconic vessel shape that characterise the latter (Sheridan 2016, fig. 6). There is certainly regional variability among the pottery dating to between c. 3300 BC and c. 2900 BC in Scotland and, as noted elsewhere, it may be time to redefine ‘Impressed Ware’ or to replace it by different terms (ibid, 200).

As for the small Milton of Leys assemblage of eight vessels, which has been radiocarbon-dated to this date bracket, its attribution to the Grooved Ware tradition (MHG54230; MacSween 2003 and see Fig. 5.21) is, in the opinion of this chapter’s principal author, problematic for two reasons. The first is chronological. While Vessel 1 (Fig. 5.21) indeed resembles a type of Grooved Ware that has vertical cordons, the date of 4448±24 BP (SUERC-84856, 3331–3016 cal BC) obtained from encrusted organic residue on its interior (Copper et al 2019, 233) – a date that is consistent with short-lived species charcoal dates from the site (Connolly and MacSween 2003) – is considerably earlier than the dates for vertical cordon-decorated Grooved Ware elsewhere in Scotland (Copper et al 2018, 2019) and in England (where it has been dated to c. 2600 BC at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, for example). In Orkney, where the Grooved Ware ceramic tradition seems to have originated, the earliest Grooved Ware (from c. 3200 BC) in no way resembles the vessels from Milton of Leys.

The second objection concerns the shape and decoration of the other vessels. The shapes of Vessels 7 and 8 are uncharacteristic of Grooved Ware and would fit better within the range noted for modified CB and Impressed Ware pottery. Likewise, the impressed and incised decoration on Vessels 5–7 is not typical of that seen on Grooved Ware (although the use of cord impression is not wholly unknown) and, once again, fits better with that seen on pottery conventionally described as Impressed Ware. Therefore, rather than regarding the Milton of Leys assemblage as the earliest Grooved Ware assemblage in Britain, in the opinion of this chapter’s principal author it might be better to characterise it as a local variant form of ‘Impressed Ware’. What is needed are many more assemblages dating to between c.3300 BC and c. 2900 BC in this part of Highland Region, so that a more detailed picture of the range of forms and decoration can be obtained.

Figure 5.21: Middle Neolithic pottery from Milton of Leys, Inverness-shire. From MacSween 2003; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
North/northeast Highland Region

On the basis of its evident similarity with assemblages from radiocarbon-dated chamber tombs in Orkney (Sheridan and Schulting 2020), it is likely that the undecorated and decorated pottery found inside the passage tombs and relating to their use at Kenny’s Cairn (MHG2201), Cairn of Get / Garrywhin (MHG2210) and Camster Round (MHG1816) in Caithness, and at the Ord North, Sutherland (MHG11983), dates to between c. 3600 BC and c. 3000 BC (Fig. 5.22; Davidson and Henshall 1991, 104 and figs. 19–20; Henshall and Ritchie 1995, fig. 22). Radiocarbon dates falling within this date bracket were obtained around 1980 from the Ord North for hazel, pine and alder charcoal from the ante-chamber and main chamber (Sharples 1981), and while these are sub-optimal dates because they were determined from mixed species samples, they do not contradict the statement made above.

Figure 5.22: Neolithic pottery from passage tombs in northern Highland Region: 1. Kenny’s Cairn, Caithness; 2. Garrywhin (Cairn of Get), Caithness; 3. Camster Round, Caithness; 4. Ord North, Sutherland. (1–3) after Davidson and Henshall 1991; (4) after Henshall and Ritchie 1995; ©Audrey Henshall

The pottery in question (Fig. 5.22) comprises (in various combinations) undecorated vessels, both carinated and uncarinated, whose ultimate ancestry in traditional CB pottery is evident, plus decorated vessels of two kinds: Unstan bowls (Fig. 5.22.2 and 4) and deep-bellied pots with impressed decoration, made using a finger- or thumbnail, over most of their body (Fig. 5.22.1 and 2). In some cases the nail has been used to gouge an oval shape. This kind of decoration can be described as ‘rustication’. It is clear, from Joseph Anderson’s description of the now-lost pottery found in Camster Round, that these kinds of pottery were also present in that passage tomb (Anderson 1866a; 1866b).

Orcadian comparanda (Fig. 5.23) include the assemblage from Unstan (Davidson and Henshall 1989, figs 25–6), which includes all the aforementioned elements: undecorated carinated and uncarinated vessels (eg Fig. 5.23.1), many Unstan bowls (eg Fig. 5.23.2) and a rusticated pot (Fig. 5.23.3). As argued elsewhere, the Unstan chamber tomb may have been constructed as late as the 32nd century BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 208 and fig. 18.7). Such close parallels in the ceramic repertoire are one element among many that attest to close links between the inhabitants of the northern part of Highland Region and Orkney – links that began early in the fourth millennium, as noted above for the pot from Vestra Fiold, Orkney.

Figure 5.23: Orcadian comparanda for pottery from passage tombs in northern Highland Region, from Unstan chamber tomb, Mainland Orkney. After Davidson and Henshall 1989; ©Audrey Henshall

The pottery with rusticated impressed decoration differs from the ‘Impressed Ware’ in the southeast part of the Region in that the decoration extends over more of the body. Moreover, other elements of the ‘Impressed Ware’ repertoire are not present. There is currently no adequate term to describe the Middle Neolithic pottery of the northern and northeastern part of the Region, but the description given above summarises its elements.

As for other finds of Neolithic pottery that could date within the 3600–3000 BC bracket in northern Highland Region, the evidence can be summarised as follows:

  • Lairg, Sutherland: sherds, undiagnostic as to vessel shape or tradition, from contexts associated with early tillage, from a truncated pit sealed by a cairn (Site 0870) and from tillage-truncated features found during road construction in 1995–6 (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 95; the pottery sealed under House 1 may also be Neolithic: ibid, 203, but cf. comments by MacSween 1998, 141)
  • Skitten, Caithness: one sherd that may be from an Unstan bowl, recognised by R B K Stevenson among the Frances Tress Barry collection at NMS; precise location and nature of findspot unknown (Stevenson 1946; MHG2006)
  • Ormiegill passage tomb, Caithness (MHG2184): a large assemblage, all lost, of undecorated round-based pottery, ‘made of a thin dark paste, hard and smooth’ (Anderson 1866a, 246; cf. Anderson 1868, 499)
  • Lower Dounreay passage tomb, Caithness (MHG2479): one sherd of a thin-walled carinated bowl with gentle carination, of hard dark gritty fabric with black burnished exterior (Davidson and Henshall 1991, 126 and fig. 20) could be Carinated Bowl pottery
  • Ackergill Mound chamber tomb, Caithness (MHG2136): sherds with incised and impressed decoration, including a possible Unstan bowl, known only from a 1902 watercolour kept in the National Record of the Historic Environment (Scanned image of a drawing of assorted pottery sherds; entitled: ‘Ackergill Mound, 1902’. | Canmore SG875827). That watercolour also includes two sherds that are clearly of Beaker pottery
  • Wet Weather Cave, Smoo, Durness, Sutherland (MHG29333): ‘sherds from a pot decorated with whipped-cord ‘maggot’ impressions were found in this cave (Pollard 1995), this could be of Middle Neolithic date
  • Littleferry, Sutherland (MHG11663): according to Richard Bradley (Bradley et al 2017), there is a sherd of Impressed Ware from Littleferry in Dunrobin Castle Museum. This needs further investigation.
Western parts of Highland Region

As in northern/northeastern Highland Region, there are few findspots of pottery dating within the 3600–3000 BC bracket in the west. Excavations at Cladh Aindreis Clyde cairn on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula (MHG459; Harris et al 2010) produced one vessel that can clearly be attributed to the modified CB tradition (Fig. 5.24): an undecorated bowl with a flattish-rounded rim (Sheridan 2021a). It is uncertain whether this was associated with activity pre-dating c. 3600 BC, or to activity dating to c. 3600–3300 BC, however. The design ancestry for this pot need not have come from the Inverness area, since there are finds of traditional and early modified CB pottery in the west of Scotland, to the south of Highland Region.

Sadly, the sherds of undecorated Neolithic pottery excavated by John Corcoran at Balvraid, Lochalsh (MHG5357; Corcoran 1965) – a small simple passage tomb, subsequently aggrandised by the addition of a square horned cairn – are lost (Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 232), so it is impossible to tell whether they are comparable with the Cladh Aindreis pottery, or with that from Rubh’ an Dunain (Rudh’ an Dunain; MHG4901) on Skye.

Figure 5.24: Rimsherd of a bowl in the modified CB tradition from Cladh Aindreis Clyde cairn. ©Alison Sheridan

The Rubh’ an Dunain pottery (Fig. 5.25), from a passage tomb with a characteristically Hebridean funnel-shaped passage (Scott 1932; 1934; Henshall 1972, 310, 485–8), consists of part of an undecorated modified CB bowl, probably carinated or shouldered, with a flanged rim (Fig. 5.25.1), plus a hemispherical collared bowl with diagonal incised lines around the collar (Fig. 5.25.2). (Parts of a third Neolithic pot are lost). The collared bowl is unlike any vessel found in the eastern or northern part of Highland Region, but a more extensively decorated version of the same shape of pot is known from Glenvoidean Clyde cairn on Bute (Henshall 1972, 306, no. 3), and collared unshouldered bowls with similar rim decoration are known from Bigland Round, Sandhill Smithy and Kierfea Hill on Orkney (Davidson and Henshall 1989, fig. 19). These comparanda may attest to extensive networks of communication along the western coast and as far north as Orkney; firm evidence for such links comes from the Outer Hebrides, where the shared use of Unstan bowls with Orkney suggests interactions between 3600 BC and 3300 BC (Sheridan 2016, fig. 3; cf. Copper and Armit 2018). The possibility that the Rubh’ an Dunain pottery – or, at least, the undecorated carinated bowl – may actually pre-date 3600 BC cannot be ruled out.

Figure 5.25: Neolithic pottery from Rubh’ (Rudh’) an Dunain, Skye. After Henshall 1972; ©Audrey Henshall

Three other finds of Neolithic pottery are known from Skye. One is a sherd, probably from an Unstan bowl, found during fieldwork undertaken for Scotland’s First Settlers project at An Corran E, Skye (MacSween 2009, SFS101, P7; MHG35899); a second, undiagnostic sherd was also found. The second is a sherd found in topsoil near a Late Bronze Age enclosure at Home Farm, Kiltaraglen, Portree, also on Skye (MHG51648); this was described as ‘Finely decorated Hebridean Late Neolithic pottery’ (Suddaby 2013, 9) although, if it is of Hebridean Incised Ware, a Middle Neolithic date is implied. The third is a small assemblage of modified CB pottery found in an unusual, small chamber tomb at Strathglebe (MHG5316), and currently being investigated by and dated for Alison Sheridan. It is most likely to date within the 3600–3000 BC bracket, and quite possibly to the earlier end of that range.

An important (but as-yet unpublished) domestic assemblage from Beinn Tighe on Canna (MHG5560; MHG5561), dated to c. 3300–3000 BC and found both during fieldwork in the 1990s and during an excavation in 2006 and 2007, constitutes a local version of modified CB pottery and demonstrates how long this tradition persisted in this part of the Region (Sheridan 2015; Gannon 2016, parts of fig 8.4). The assemblage is mostly undecorated, with vessel forms ranging from tiny cups to very large jars with estimated rim diameters in excess of 300 mm. Variously-shaped lugs are fairly common, especially on the larger jars, and many vessels have an applied horizontal rib in place of a carination, to help prevent the pot from slipping through the hands. (One pot has two parallel ribs). Some pots have a carination a short way below the rim. Where decoration exists, it mostly comprises incised lines (including one design with triangles filled with alternating sloping lines, reminiscent of that seen on vessels within the Unstan bowl tradition) but also includes jabbed impressions, finger-/thumbnail impressions, usually dragged, and one example of shell impression (probably cockle). Two possible flat platters are a noteworthy element of the assemblage. The assemblage is fairly thick-walled.

The site at Beinn Tighe is a mound comprising settlement debris, with the remains of two stone structures, one oval and measuring 2.8 m by 2.3 m (Gannon 2016, 144).  Other pottery of probably Middle Neolithic date has been found in other low mounds on Canna and some of this is illustrated in Angela Gannon’s publication on the Neolithic finds from Canna. Some of this is thinner-walled and somewhat finer than most of the Beinn Tighe pottery. Further research and dating of the overall ensemble of Canna Neolithic pottery is recommended, as is full publication of the Beinn Tighe site  (ibid, fig. 8.4).

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