Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s post about bone tempering in one of the Moseley Height Urns. I have hidden my desk under books about pottery and am now going to try to respond to some of the questions in a bit more detail. I mentioned that bone temper is known from a few Neolithic vessels. One in particular, a Neolithic bowl fragment discovered during excavations in advance of the Market Deeping bypass, stuck in my head because I examined the pottery for that site. The Heritage Lincolnshire account of this work is available online through the splendid Archaeology Data Service but unfortunately the pot report Julia and I wrote is one of the archives which haven’t been digitized. We did this in 2000 so, unsurprisingly, I don’t have an electronic copy of my report anymore. However, I did find the pencil drawings I made at the time in the back of the filing cabinet.
This is the bone tempered sherd in question. It is part of the rim of a Mildenhall style bowl. There is another bone tempered Neolithic bowl from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire which was reported by Isobel Smith and Tim Darvill in their pottery report for the site. They list six other examples of bone tempering from sites in western Britain and Ireland: Robin Hood’s Ball and Avebury in Wiltshire (one sherd from each site); The Breiddin, Powys (possible identification of bone in a Beaker sherd); one sherd from Carrowmore; and several sherds from Creevykeel both in Co. Sligo and another Beaker sherd from the Grange Stone circle, Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. The bone in the beaker sherds was only detected because they were microscopically examined and Darvill and Smith point out that this means there may be many others that haven’t been discovered. I have added a link to the online version of this pot report to the reading list page under ‘pottery’.
All of these, even the Beaker sherds, are likely to be older than the collared urn we were looking at. Ian Longworth’s monumental ‘Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland’ only looks at the pottery fabric in general terms and he doesn’t note any bone tempered vessels. John Waddell and Breandán Ó Ríordáin wrote a similarly comprehensive study of the Irish material which neither I nor our library have a copy of so I can’t check in that yet. I have the same problem with two very useful volumes from 1978 on Northern Bronze Age pottery by Trevor Cowie and Alex Gibson. I have put all these things on the reading list to remind me to go shopping on Abe books for second-hand copies.
In the comments last week, Sean asked whether the bone could have been added accidentally – if the clay was being prepared in an area where bone had previously been burnt then you can see how small fragments could easily get into the body of the pot. The whole question of how you distinguish a deliberate inclusion from naturally occurring or accidentally added material is covered in great detail in Prudence Rice’s excellent Pottery Analysis: a sourcebook. In this case I think the bone is a deliberate addition because you only get the large fragments, not the range of sizes you would expect if the clay was accidentally mopping up bone ash.
Carlos picked up on my blithe assertion that lots of traditionally made pottery from around the world is tempered for what we would regard as non-functional reasons. There is an excellent review by Olivier Gosselain of belief systems around and based on pottery manufacture for African societies which includes a lot of this stuff. It was published in the Journal of Material Culture, once again the full reference is on the reading list.