Middle Neolithic

The modified CB tradition persisted in use over much of this period, developing in diverse ways in different parts of the Highlands. 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 pottery makers outside the 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, dating to c 3300 to 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. A snapshot of developments in different parts of Highland Region is offered here.

Southeast Highland Region

The assemblage of modified CB pottery found during excavations at Culduthel, and radiocarbon-dated to c 3600–3500 BC and c 3300 BC (MHG51630; Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley forthcoming), shows a greater departure from the traditional CB canon than in the pre-3600 BC modified CB assemblages. 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. This constitutes a stylistic development of a particular vessel form known from the traditional CB repertoire. Comparanda exist in western Scotland, 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, 100–2) after one example found in a passage tomb at Achnacree, Argyll and Bute. The Culduthel example comes from a context radiocarbon-dated to 3641–3519 cal BC (SUERC-20229).

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

Also present in the Culduthel 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.

Examples of ‘proto-Unstan’ bowls from Culduthel, Inverness. From Sheridan 2010b. ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd

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 (Peteranna 2016). These vessels are important because they form part of the story of the development of ‘Unstan bowls’ (Sheridan 2016, 194, fig. 3). Unstan bowls likely originated 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.

Bowl, similar to the Culduthel ‘proto-Unstan’ bowls, from the Inverness West Link Road excavations at Canal Park, Torvean. ©AOC Archaeology

Unstan bowls have been found further north in Highland Region at passage tombs at The Ord North, Sutherland (MHG11983; Henshall and Ritchie 1995, fig. 22) and Garrywhin (Cairn of Get), Caithness (MHG2210; Davidson and Henshall 1991, fig. 19, no. 4), 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.

Classic’ ‘Unstan’ bowls: 1. The Ord North, Sutherland; 2. Garrywhin, 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 200m 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, found at Greenside Farm, Rosemarkie, incorrectly identified as ‘Grooved Ware’ in the publication (Peteranna and Kennedy 2018, plate 3; EHG5384), might also date to roughly the same period.

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; Case Study Lower Slackbuie) is idiosyncratic, consisting mostly of fairly coarse uncarinated vessels but including one large bulbous jar with a row of nested incised vertical arcs just below the rim. 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) confirm that this settlement activity belongs to the second half of the fourth millennium, possibly with two episodes, one around the time when the above described pot was deposited and the other between c 3350 BC and c 3000 BC. 

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 remains to be seen how much modified CB pottery has been found in the excavations on the line of the Inverness West Link Road. Neolithic pottery was 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.

Sherds of Neolithic pottery were also 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).

The pottery from this part of Highland Region that 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). 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 (MHG51630); Culduthel Phase 9 (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 (Sheridan 2014a, 21–2; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works); Kinbeachie, Culbokie (MacSween 2001; MHG58909) and Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (Johnson 2012; EHG3271; Case Study Kinbeachie Neolithic Settlement). 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).

Impressed Ware jar from Culduthel. From Sheridan 2010b; © Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
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 it often occurs on the top of the flattish, sometimes expanded rim. Undecorated pots are present in some of these assemblages, including Culduthel where one such pot has a narrow, flattish base. Vessel forms are mostly deep-bellied jars.

Impressed Ware from Kinbeachie, Easter Ross: After Barclay et al 2001; © Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Sylvia Stevenson
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

Of note is the presence of a pot of the ‘Fengate Ware’ style of Impressed Ware pottery from Inverness Flood Relief Works (Sheridan 2011a, Pot 3); this pottery style is widespread in England and Wales, but uncommon in Scotland.

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 that they lack 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 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).

The eight-vessel Milton of Leys assemblage, which has been radiocarbon-dated to the same date range, has been attributed to the Grooved Ware tradition (MHG54230; MacSween 2003 and see Fig. 5.21). However this may be problematic as while Vessel 1 resembles a type of Grooved Ware that has vertical cordons, the date of 3331–3016 cal BC (SUERC-84856) obtained from encrusted organic residue on its interior (Copper et al 2019, 233) is considerably earlier than the dates for vertical cordon-decorated Grooved Ware elsewhere in Scotland (Copper et al 2018; 2019). It is also earlier than dates in England where this style of potter 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 shapes of Vessels 7 and 8 from Milton of Leys are also 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 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, it might be better to characterise it as a local variant form of ‘Impressed Ware’. What is needed to affirm this arguement is 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.

Middle Neolithic pottery from Milton of Leys, Inverness-shire. From MacSween 2003; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd
North/northeast of the 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), 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 (Davidson and Henshall 1991, 104; 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).

Neolithic pottery from passage tombs in northern Highland Region: 1. Kenny’s Cairn, Caithness; 2. Garrywhin, 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 comprises undecorated vessels, both carinated and uncarinated, whose ultimate ancestry in traditional CB pottery is evident, plus decorated vessels of two kinds: Unstan bowls and deep-bellied pots with impressed decoration, made using a finger- or thumbnail, covering most of the body. 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 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 include the assemblage from Unstan (Davidson and Henshall 1989, figs 25–6), which have the same elements: undecorated carinated and uncarinated vessels, many Unstan bowls and a rusticated pot. As argued elsewhere, the Unstan chamber tomb may have been constructed as late as the 32nd century BC (Sheridan and Schulting 2020, 208; 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 4th millennium, as noted above by the pot from Vestra Fiold, Orkney.

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 to within the 3600–3000 BC range 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 and from tillage-truncated features found during road construction (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 95). The pottery sealed under House 1 may also be Neolithic (ibid, 203, but see 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; Anderson 1868, 499)
  • Lower Dounreay passage tomb, Caithness (MHG2479): one sherd of a thin-walled carinated bowl with gentle carination, made 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. The 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 Bradley (et al 2017), there is a sherd of Impressed Ware from Littleferry in Dunrobin Castle Museum. This needs further investigation.
Western parts of the Highland Region

As in the northern/northeastern part of the Highland Region, there are few findspots of pottery dating within the 3600–3000 BC range 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: an undecorated bowl with a flattish-rounded rim (Sheridan 2021a). It is, however, uncertain whether this was associated with activity pre-dating c 3600 BC, or to activity dating to c 3600–3300 BC. 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 the 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 Rubha’ an Dùnain (Rudh’ an Dunain; MHG4901) on Skye.

Rimsherd of a bowl in the modified CB tradition from Cladh Aindreis Clyde cairn on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. ©Alison Sheridan

The Rubha’ an Dùnain pottery, which comes 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, plus a hemispherical collared bowl with diagonal incised lines around the collar. 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 the Glenvoidean Clyde cairn on Bute (Henshall 1972, 306, no. 3). 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 also comes from the Outer Hebrides, where the shared use of Unstan bowls suggests interactions between 3600 BC and 3300 BC (Sheridan 2016, fig. 3; cf. Copper and Armit 2018). The possibility that the Rubha’ an Dùnain pottery may actually pre-date 3600 BC cannot be ruled out.

Neolithic pottery from Rubha’ an Dùnain, 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 the Scotland’s First Settlers project at An Corran E, Skye (MacSween 2009, SFS101, P7; MHG35899; Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project); a second undiagnostic sherd was also found. The second Neolithic find is a sherd found in topsoil near a Late Bronze Age enclosure at Home Farm, Kiltaraglen, Portree (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 a small, unusual chamber tomb at Strathglebe (MHG5316) which is currently being investigated and dated by Alison Sheridan. It is most likely to date to 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) which was found both during fieldwork in the 1990s and during an excavation in 2006 and 2007 has been dated to c 3300–3000 BC. It constitutes a local version of modified CB pottery and its presence demonstrates how long this tradition persisted in this part of the Region (Sheridan 2015a; Gannon 2016, 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 300mm. 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 those seen on vessels within the Unstan bowl tradition. Decoration also includes jabbed impressions and finger or thumbnail impressions which are usually dragged, and one example of shell impression, probably a cockle. Two possible flat platters are a noteworthy element of the assemblage. The objects in the assemblage have fairly thick-walls.

The site at Beinn Tighe is a mound comprising settlement debris, with the remains of two stone structures, one in the shape of an oval and measuring 2.8m by 2.3m (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 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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