Late Neolithic (Grooved Ware)

In 1999, when Rosamund Cleal and Ann MacSween published their Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland volume, just four findspots of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware in Highland Region were listed in their Gazetteer (namely Freswick Links, Caithness (MHG1669), Raigmore (Stoneyfield), Inverness (MHG3723), Inverness Police HQ (MHG55798) and outside a Beaker cist at Dornoch Nursery, Sutherland (MHG11738): Cleal and MacSween 1999, 201, 202, 203). Today in 2021, thanks to recent developer-funded excavations, the number of findspots has risen to 11, although this figure ignores the fact that some pairs of findspots are separated by just 200 m or less, and could well have been part of the same original settlement as each other. These additional findspots are:

  • Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (MHG60873; MHG60874; Sheridan 2014a);
  • Culduthel, phases 7–8 (MHG51630; Sheridan 2010b and in Hatherley forthcoming), around 200 m north of:
  • SE Inverness Flood Relief Channel, Phase 3 (MHG55500; Sheridan 2011);
  • Lower Slackbuie (2017 excavations by Headland Archaeology: EHG5387/MHG3735; Dalland 2020), around 150 m from:
  • Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site: EHG3271; Johnson 2012);
  • Inverness West Link Road (probably the Canal Park site, Torvean: Peteranna 2016);
  • East Beechwood Farm (MHG54233; Engl and Clements 2009), which is 200 m from the original location of the Raigmore site.

(Note that one sherd from Canna, tentatively described as Grooved Ware [Gannon 2016, 144 and fig. 8.4], is too small and undiagnostic to be accepted as an example of this pottery type.)

With the exception of the finds from Freswick Links, Dornoch Nursery and Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water works, all the findspots are in, or within a couple of kilometres of, the city of Inverness. In several cases (Culduthel phases 7–8, SE Inverness Flood Relief Channel, Lower Slackbuie ASDA site, the Canal Park site and Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water site), the findspots are part of multi-phase palimpsests of activity dating from different times during the Neolithic (and, in some cases, subsequent periods as well), showing a persistence of use of these areas. The size of the assemblages varies widely, with the find from Dornoch Nursery consisting solely of a single rimsherd, and those from Inverness Police HQ and from Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works consisting of small numbers of sherds from single vessels, while the assemblage from Raigmore comprises sherds from at least 35 pots and that from the Lower Slackbuie (ASDA) site comprises sherds from 317 pots, found mostly in the fill of a palaeochannel. Several of the assemblages have not yet been published, and in some cases post-excavation specialist work has not yet been undertaken, so the discussion of pot design below is necessarily provisional.

The find contexts appear to be domestic in nature, although at Raigmore – where a house was found, along with numerous pits that may be contemporary with it – five of the pits that contained Grooved Ware also contained cremated human remains (namely Pits 20, 21, 41, 49 and 50: Simpson 1996a). Of these, the remains in Pit 50 turned out to be intrusive, from a Late Bronze Age episode of burial, when they were radiocarbon dated as part of Mike Copper’s Tracing the Lines project on Scottish Grooved Ware south of Orkney (Copper et al 2018, 224). The remains in Pit 20, however, produced a radiocarbon date, for the same project, of 3090–2907 cal BC (SUERC-77846, 4371±33 BP: ibid, 223), confirming that in this pit, at least, there had been a funerary deposition – or else a deployment of human remains – associated with Grooved Ware. A further example of an association between Grooved Ware and calcined bone in a pit is known from Culduthel (phases 7–8, Pots 40 and 41: Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley forthcoming). A fragment of that bone has been dated to 2900–2680 cal BC (SUERC-20308, 4215±35 BP). Even though it was not possible to determine whether the bone was human or animal, the fact that the pit was from a circle of pits containing charcoal and burnt stone, with further pits inside that circle (one with sherds from Pot 40) containing calcined bone, points towards this being a funerary deposition of human remains and not a set of pits for disposing of domestic waste (Hatherley forthcoming).

The Grooved Ware pottery from Highland Region is variable in its design, but it is all flat-based, and the vessel forms are mostly tub-, bucket- or barrel-shaped. (See Copper et al 2021 for a discussion of some of this pottery, and Copper 2019 for an online gazetteer from his Tracing the Lines project.) Many of the pots are large, over 200 mm in rim diameter, with the example from Inverness Police HQ having an estimated rim diameter between 250 mm and 300 mm (Kenworthy 1997) and one from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site having a 340 mm rim diameter (Johnson 2012, 7). It is possible that some of the small, relatively thin-walled vessels from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (Fig. 5.26) are from relatively shallow fineware bowls with splaying walls, although not enough of each vessel is present to be sure about this. Wall thickness and fineness of fabric varies, with many of the large pots having wall thicknesses in excess of 12 mm, and/or having large lithic inclusions (Fig. 5.27). Some pots, such as that from Inverness Police HQ and Pots 40 and 41 from Culduthel phases 7–8 (Fig. 5.28), are undecorated or only minimally decorated, while others have decoration that is incised, impressed, applied, or combinations of all three.

Figure 5.26: Examples of thin-walled and comparatively fine Grooved Ware from Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site), Inverness, that may include shallow fineware bowls. After Johnson 2012; ©NG Archaeological Services

Figure 5.27: Selection of large Grooved Ware pots from (1 – left hand side) Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site) and (2 – right hand side) Stoneyfield, Raigmore, including thick-walled examples. Note several examples of ‘slashed’ ribs. After Johnson 2012 and Simpson 1996a; ©NG Archaeological Services (1) and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the estate of Derek Simpson (2). Note that the top two pots from Lower Slackbuie are associated with late radiocarbon dates (late 3rd–early 2nd millennium BC), but the dated material is suspected to be intrusive

Figure 5.28: Grooved Ware pots (Pots 40 and 41) associated with calcined bone in a pit at Culduthel (Phases 7 and 8), Inverness. From Sheridan 2010b; ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd

Several assemblages include design features that are shared with (and originated in) Orcadian Grooved Ware, and this is one more piece of evidence for connections between Highland Region and Orkney during the Neolithic period – in this case, at the very beginning of the third millennium BC. These design features include the use of alternate slashes, located between parallel horizontal incised lines or on a rib or false rib (Figs. 5.26, 5.28), creating a false-relief wavy line design, to varying degrees of abstraction.

This design is present in the Lower Slackbuie ASDA assemblage, and at Canal Park, Torvean (Fig. 5.29). Other Orcadian features include the use of scalloped or notched rims (at Lower Slackbuie ASDA and Raigmore: Fig. 5.30); applied horizontal cordons (e.g. at Lower Slackbuie ASDA: Fig. 5.27); ‘slashed’ or indented cordons or pseudo-cordons (at Lower Slackbuie ASDA and Culduthel, Pot 41: Figs. 5.27, 5.28); ‘blind’ circular hollows resembling incomplete perforations (at Lower Slackbuie ASDA and Raigmore: Fig. 5.27); applied pellets (at Freswick Sands on the far north coast: Fig. 5.31.1) and an applied oval motif (at the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site: Fig. 5.31.2); plus other applied and incised designs featuring horizontal and diagonal lines, creating triangular blank areas (at Lower Slackbuie ASDA and Raigmore: Figs 5.29, 5.32), and decoration around the upper part of the body, featuring straight or wavy incised lines (grooves), as seen for example in the Inverness Flood Relief assemblage, Pot 5 (Fig. 5.33).

Figure 5.29: Large sherd of Grooved Ware from Canal Park, Torvean, Inverness, with a ‘false wavy line’ design on false ribs. Photograph by Mary Peteranna ©AOC Archaeology
Figure 5.30: Scalloped and notched Grooved Ware rims from (1) Stoneyfield, Raigmore. and (2) Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site) (1) After Simpson 1996a; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the estate of Derek Simpson (2) After Johnson 2012, ©NG Archaeological Services
Figure 5.31: Grooved Ware with applied pellets: 1. Freswick Sands, Caithness (with the position of the pellets indicated by adjacent stars); 2. Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site), Inverness; note that here the pellet is oval, with a central dimple. (1) ©Alison Sheridan/NMS; 2. After Johnson 2012, ©NG Archaeological Services

Figure 5.32: Grooved Ware with designs featuring horizontal and diagonal lines, creating angular spaces between them: 1. Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site), Inverness; 2. Stoneyfield, Raigmore, Inverness. (1) After Johnson 2012, ©NG Archaeological Services; (2) After Simpson 1996a; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the estate of Derek Simpson
Figure 5.33: Grooved Ware featuring design of straight (1) or wavy (2) grooved lines over the upper part of the body. 1. South West Inverness Flood Relief Channel (Phase 3), Culduthel; 2. Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site), Inverness. (1) From Sheridan 2011, ©RoCAS; (2) After Johnson 2012, ©NG Archaeological Services

Other design features are harder to parallel in Orkney or have fewer close comparanda there, such as the decorative schemes in the pots from Pit 20 at Raigmore (ie Pots 4–6: Fig. 5.34) which may – despite an early associated date – be slightly later than the rest of the assemblage. Pot 4, with its vertical ribs, is of a style of Grooved Ware with a widespread distribution in England and Wales and Scotland as far north as Inverness; Ian Longworth dubbed it ‘Durrington Walls style’. While the use of vertical cordons is attested in Orcadian Grooved Ware (eg at Skara Brae), no ‘classic’ ‘Durrington Walls’ style pots are known from there, and its presence at Raigmore points towards a network of contacts extending southwards from this site. Dates from England (including the eponymous site) suggest its use there around 2600–2500 BC, whereas Mike Copper’s Tracing the Lines project has shown that it was in use in Scotland as early as 2834–2475 cal BC (for a pair of identical dates from Wellbrae, South Lanarkshire: Copper et al 2018, 223. See also Section for why the superficially similar pot from Milton of Leys, directly dated to 3331–3016 cal BC, is unlikely to be a precociously early example of this pot type). It may be that the radiocarbon date from calcined human bone associated with the Grooved Ware pots in Raigmore Pit 20 – 3090–2907 cal BC (SUERC-77846, 4371±33 BP: ibid) – suffers from carbon exchange with old wood used as pyre fuel, and is thus slightly older than its actual date. (The dating of the Raigmore assemblage, and of other Grooved Ware, is discussed by Mike Copper elsewhere: Copper 2019; Copper et al 2021.)

Figure 5.34: Grooved Ware from Pit 20 at Stoneyfield, Raigmore (Pots 4–6). After Simpson 1996a; ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the estate of Derek Simpson

The dating of Highland Region Grooved Ware, such as it is (ibid), confirms that this type of pottery was definitely in use from around the beginning of the third millennium. In addition to the dates mentioned above, there are two dates for short-lived species charcoal from pits associated with early-style Grooved Ware at the Inverness Flood Relief (Phase 3) site at Culduthel: 3030–2890 cal BC (SUERC-34575, 4335±30 BP) for Pit 23 and 3090–2900 cal BC (SUERC-34576, 4365±30 BP) for Pit 20 (Sheridan 2011, 39). As regards the Grooved Ware from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site, two vessels from the palaeochannel there are from a context dated to 2617–2351 cal BC and 2565–2299 cal BC. Much later dates of 2296–2041 cal BC and 1881–1689 cal BC, from a pit containing what are believed to be sherds of Grooved Ware, are too late for this ceramic style and it may well be that the burnt hazelnut shells that produced these dates had been intrusive. 

As for the length of its currency, we should not be tempted to interpret an old date of 2565–2201 cal BC (SRR-429, 3894±60 BP) for a possibly mixed-species charcoal sample from Pit 21 at Raigmore as indicating that Grooved Ware use persisted there as late as that; the dated charcoal could well be intrusive, and could relate to the construction of the Chalcolithic Clava Cairn at that site. The question of the overall currency of Grooved Ware in Highland Region remains open, and many more dates are required – particularly for pottery found during recent developer-funded excavations.

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