Fables of the Reconstruction

Entirely showing my age with the title of this post, but I was listening to R.E.M. in the car last week and there is a very vague connection. My excuse is that if I make terrible pop music related puns in the titles of my blog posts then I get them out of my system and don’t feel tempted to use them for the titles of academic papers. I am still working on describing and cataloguing the pottery from the caves and rock-shelters in Goldsland Wood near Cardiff.

In particular, I have been looking at trying to reconstruct (see what I did there) the shape of the single Early Neolithic pot that was left outside Wolf Cave. The individual bits of this are too fragmentary for any physical sticking back together. However, it is still possible to work out and illustrate how some of them fitted together on paper and that is what I have been doing this week. In a previous life as an archaeological illustrator I used to have to do this sort of thing quite a lot. If you like drawing its one of those jobs that feels too therapeutic to be really classed as work.

GD site A pottery

I started by making measured sketches of each individual sherd, or at least of each sherd that was big enough that I thought I could work out where it was likely to have come from on the pot. These were drawn with a 6H pencil on the plastic drawing film with pre-printed squares that we use for all recording. Although the pencil sketches look  bit scruffy on this it makes it very easy to check dimensions on the sherds as you draw them. Incidentally, I have absolutely no idea while archaeologists have preserved the slightly archaic spelling ‘sherd’ to refer to broken bits of pottery: but we have. We only use it for pottery and it drives spell-check software crazy.

illustrator screenshot 01

These pencil sketches are just the basis for the final, publishable version of the pottery drawing. I used to do all my artefact drawing on plain drawing film using a range of different sizes of Rotring technical pens. However, about ten years ago my ex-colleague Anne introduced me to the wonders of Adobe Illustrator.  I realised that I could probably learn how to use the software in the time I spent cleaning and unblocking tech pens in the average week and so now my pencil sketches all go on a scanner before being ‘inked’ up electronically.

Illustrator works in layers. Here I have put the pencil sketch on the lowest layer of the drawing and have inked in the outlines of each sherd. Notice there are views of both the surface of the pottery and cross-sectional views through the sherds.

illustrator screenshot 02

Next, I have used a lighter line weight to add some internal details. Once again this is on the next layer in the drawing, which helps to keep any future editing simple. If I decide later on in the drawing process that this line weight needs changing it is easy to just select the lines on this layer and they can all be changed together.

illustrator screenshot 03

The next, and biggest, part of the drawing is to use a combination of even finer lines and lots of stippling to give some sense of the three-dimensional form of each sherd. Working on an electronic drawing allows me to be an endless fiddle-fingers at this stage. The change in the screen shots is because this stage took me most of Friday and Saturday night, working at home on my slightly older version of illustrator. This represents many hours of standing back from the screen with half closed eyes, fussing about where to add or remove little electronic dots. This is one of the reasons I like drawing on a computer; pen and ink is much less forgiving. You can edit an ink drawing on film but only by scratching away at it with a knife like a medieval monk in the scriptorium.

Once this stage is finished I delete the pencil sketch from the bottom layer, which suddenly makes the whole thing look much more finished. In this case I also decided that I wanted to reorganise where the sherds were in the final drawing. I add some line shading to distinguish the cross-sections more clearly and a scale and then the reconstruction is finished.


The surviving sherds clearly show the thickened rim and upright shape of the pot. In some cases you can get an idea from the curvature of the broken sherds what the diameter of the original vessel was. I had a go at this with this one but didn’t feel the results were good enough to immortalise in the drawing. What I can say is that it was quite small, probably less than 150 mm in diameter. Although no recognisable base sherds survived, it will have had a round base, as all Early Neolithic pottery invariably did. It is likely to have been a cooking pot, the round base would have stood easily on the fire or on uneven earth floors.

Pots like this are a great example of how objects can be both very mundane and have ritual meanings at the same time. This was a small cooking pot, hand-made and fired in an open fire, with a probable working life of only a few years at best. As pottery, it was also part of a new kind of technology which was radically changing the way people cooked and ate. This particular pot never got old enough to be broken in use. It was left, probably with some sort of offering in it, outside what we assume to have been a sacred cave.


  1. Hi there. Fabulous blog post. I am both a prehistoric pottery specialist and manager of a project which features ‘rock cut shelters’. Very interesting and thank you for blogging your work; what a valuable contribution. May I just say that the angle of rest (the bottom sherd) needs tweaking slightly; it is too closed. If you add in a dotted line to show projected profile between the two sherds; it would add even more value from a typological perspective. Sorry, I can never help myself. Hope you don’t mind.

  2. Thanks Emily – I see what you mean – I’ll fix that for publication. I was just looking at published pots from Ty Isaf, Tinkinswood and Parc Cwm some of which are similar but none of them are any less fragmentary than this one. It’s always a bit tricky when none of the sherds actually join, even if you think you know where they go 🙂 Whereabouts are your rock-shelters?


  3. Really interesting. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the build quality of Rotrings seems to gone down the pan recently (I hear they changed hands quite a bit). I spend more time shakin’-it-all-about than I do actually inking! So a different way of doing it is an avenue well worth exploring – thanks for the pointer.

  4. I think you may have accidentally written the most clear and concise instructions for archaeological illustration on the internet.
    I really hope you find some bi-face lithics!

  5. Bettie said:

    It’s a plesaure to find someone who can identify the issues so clearly

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