Tracing Lines (both Metaphorical and Actual) in Neolithic Aberdeenshire

Mike Copper from the University of Bradford tells us about a current project he is working on that made use of the University Museums’ collections.

During the Late Neolithic, roughly between 3000BC and 2450BC, communities across Britain and Ireland became increasingly interconnected, a process reflected in the sharing of distinctive types of monuments and artefacts. The former include timber and stone circles and new forms of funerary and domestic architecture, while the latter include stone maceheads, new forms of flint arrowhead and a novel type of pottery known as Grooved Ware. The Historic Environment Scotland-funded project ‘Tracing the Lines: Uncovering Grooved Ware Trajectories in Neolithic Scotland’ aims to improve our understanding of the changes that occurred at this time by investigating the nature and timing of the spread and subsequent development of Grooved Ware pottery following its appearance in Orkney in the last couple of centuries of the 4th millennium BC.

Photo 1As part of this project I was able to spend a couple of days in the Collections Centre in Marischal College to examine several important assemblages of Grooved Ware. This kind of pottery is characterised – unsurprisingly – by its incised decoration, although applied decoration is not uncommon. Unlike earlier types of pot, Grooved Ware has flat bases. These are not as well suited to cooking on open fires as pots with rounded bases as their shape means that they are more likely to crack when heated. This could suggest that the look of the pots was more important than their ability to stand up to prolonged use. If so, then it is possible they were associated with feasts or other similar events where display was significant. Perhaps they even provide our first good evidence for the use of tables!

Aberdeenshire seems to have been a significant place in the Neolithic, being associated in particular with a series of often beautifully decorated carved stone balls whose purpose remains a mystery to this day. For a long time it was believed that Grooved Ware was not made in this region, but over recent years an increasing number of sites in the northwest have started to produce assemblages of this type of pottery. Neolithic pottery is often found in shallow pits whose purpose is not entirely clear, and two significant multi-pit sites have recently been excavated close to each other near to Kintore. These produced Grooved Ware of contrasting styles and it will be interested to see if they are of different dates. The nearby site of Greenbogs, near Monymusk, produced just a couple of fragments of Grooved Ware, but these were found very close to two mysterious circular wooden structures containing square settings of posts. These closely resemble a number of other square-within-circle timber structures found across Britain and Ireland that have also been dated to the Late Neolithic. What was their purpose, and what role might Grooved Ware have played at such sites?

Photo 2Although current evidence indicates that Grooved Ware pottery originated in Orkney, the reasons why it was adopted elsewhere are hard to explain. It is possible that societies in certain regions were becoming less egalitarian and that emergent elite groups were increasingly interacting with each other. In such a situation new fashions, ideas and beliefs could spread over long distances much as foreign travel today has increased the popularity of once-exotic foods. However, potsherds had been carefully deposited in pits in Aberdeenshire long before Grooved Ware appeared, so not everything was new. Perhaps the novel ideas and artefacts existed alongside, or became mixed up with, existing practices?

Photo 3Recent analysis of ancient DNA from skeletons dating to the Early Bronze Age strongly suggests that there was a large-scale movement of people into Britain and Ireland from the continent at the end of the Neolithic. These people brought with them new artefacts and ideas including new pots known as Beakers. There does not appear to have been a long overlap in the use of Beakers and Grooved Ware and the latter soon disappears from the archaeological record. Dating the demise of Grooved Ware will therefore be a significant part of Tracing the Lines and may perhaps help us to better understand what happened to the pre-Beaker population of Britain and Ireland.

The Grooved Ware in the University collections constitutes an important archaeological resource and I am very grateful to have been allowed to examine it at first-hand. Funding permitting, we hope to have new dates for the Aberdeenshire Grooved Ware at some point next year so watch this space!

About uoamuseums

The University of Aberdeen's Museums include King’s Museum and the University's Zoology Museum. The museums can claim to be Scotland's oldest, with records of museums and collections as far back as the late 17th century. Thanks to their status as a Recognised Collection of national significance, the Zoology Museum’s displays are currently being improved, while King's Museum hosts changing exhibitions drawn from across the collections, particularly those formerly in Marischal Museum. Visitors are warmly welcomed to the museums, and there are no charges for admission. Marischal College now houses the Museums Collections Centre, caring for and conserving many of the collections.
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