Tag Archives: pottery

I’ve been in North London for the last week, celebrating various birthday related things. While my eldest went roaring off up the M1 in his auntie’s red MX5 to the Harry Potter Studio Tour for his birthday (don’t worry, she was driving), I was rattling over to Dalston Junction on the Overground to do a porcelain course with Jo Davies for mine. I’ve been making pottery for almost as long as I have been studying it as an archaeologist. I started working with clay at Southampton Student’s Union as a Wednesday afternoon diversion whilst I was a PhD student. At the time I wanted to understand hand building and bonfire firings, because that was how the Neolithic pottery I was studying was made.


Since then, however, I have got much more interested in making wheel-thrown pieces in glazed stoneware. Over the years I have developed a style of making which is probably best described as robust. Being a part-time night-class potter is a very good way of never getting out of any bad habits you have ever picked up and stoneware lets you get away with a certain amount of chunkiness in your handles and bases. Lots of my stoneware pots, like the one above, look as if they would be best used in an eighteenth century tavern brawl. Porcelain is a very different, less forgiving, material than stoneware. Last year I did a three day porcelain course with Jo at West Dean College in Sussex (which has a history and ambience worth a whole post on its own), trying to move on from my ‘Gin Lane’ aesthetic. As a follow on from this, I spent my sessions in Jo’s studio last week working on being a bit more delicate in my throwing.

While I was making mugs, and Jo was unpicking the glitches in my technique, we were talking about pottery and the connection between making things and memory. Learning to make things is a really good example of the kind of bodily ‘muscle memory’ that Paul Connerton refers to as ‘habit-memory’. There are loads of examples of this kind of remembering in all craft processes. What is interesting about this kind of memory is that it is a three way process involving your body, the physical thing you are trying to do and feedback from the person teaching you. When you are making something you can see and feel if it is working. This means that the habit-memory of learning to make something is directly connected to the physical form of the actual thing you made.


We were also talking about materials and memory in pottery, particularly about this bone tempered Collared Urn from the Moseley Heights ring cairn I wrote about a couple of years ago. There is a temptation to think about this pot as special in some way, because it is tempered with what may be cremated human bone. This seems like a very good example of a memorial object. This pot preserves the memory of a person because it contains ground up bits of their body. However, most Bronze Age urns are tempered with ground up bits of other pots. These pots would have been directly connected to the actions of the person who made them. I don’t think we can assume that the pot tempered with the remains of someone’s bones is any more directly ‘memorial’ than one which is tempered with the remains of their actions.

At this point Jo asked if I knew the work of Julian Stair, which I didn’t. Being a diligent student I went away and looked him up later. The first thing my reading showed was that I absolutely should have heard of him, a major exhibition –  Quietus – was commissioned by mima (which is in my hometown of Middlesbrough) and one of its other venues was the National Museum of Wales (where I used to work and where 90% of the pots I studied for my PhD are kept). Quietus used ceramics to explore the containment of the human body after death and included Memorium: an installation in which audio visual memories of one person’s life were projected around a bone china urn which contained and was tempered with his ashes. Apart from the congruence between Memorium and the Moseley Heights urn, there is a lot of interesting overlap between archaeology and Stair’s writing on objects and memory. I need to read a lot more of this, but to start with I have put a paper of his on craft and the body on the reading list.


Literally. We may have found evidence of crushed human bone being mixed into the clay used to make Early Bronze Age pottery. While I was looking at the Moseley Height Bronze Age pottery last week in Towneley Hall Museum I saw something that I thought was very exciting. Large white specks in the body of the pot had a very bone-like appearance. I kept quiet about this in last week’s post because I hadn’t had chance to check it out properly, however…


This is the surviving portion of Urn C. It is the bit around the rim and, as you can see, it has been fairly intensively restored since it was excavated in 1950. There are big sections where the shape has been reconstructed (or made up) using plaster of paris and brown paint. The rest of it is original Bronze Age ceramic but, to keep it from crumbling, it has been impregnated with something like PVA resin. Oddly, this means that the whole thing now feels as if it is made of plastic, which I suppose in one sense it is.

What this image also shows are the white specks of whatever it was that had been used to temper the clay. I’ve posted before about the processes of pottery manufacture and the need to add temper to clay. There are various practical reasons why you do this; it lets the steam out during firing and can improve the heat resistance of the finished pot. However, studies of modern potters in traditional societies around the world also show that it is often added for all kinds of other strange reasons. This is not to say that the temper wasn’t regarded as extremely practical by the people who used it – you can see, for example, how putting something into the mix of a burial urn that stopped the spirits of the dead from coming to eat your soul might be a high priority.


Last week, peering through the layers of resin wIth my little x20 magnification jeweller’s lens, I wasn’t quite sure what these white lumps were. Mike very generously agreed to loan us the pot so I could bring it back to Preston and put it under a microscope. On Wednesday morning Clare and I borrowed the fancy new digital microscope in the Forensic Science lab (usually used by our ballistics people to study gun cartridges) and set about trying to capture good images of the mystery tempering material.

Urn C000001

Here is one of the images from the microscope, clearly showing the bone structure in this particular fragment. Also, just as clearly showing all the shiny plastic of the consolidating resin and the microscopic particles of soil and roots now trapped in there forever.

Urn C000012

This is another fragment at slighter smaller magnification. Jim has had a look at these too and, like me, he is convinced that they are particles of burnt bone.

Burnt bone as temper in British prehistoric pottery is unusual, but not completely unknown. I know of Neolithic sherds from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire and Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, where bone was used in this way, and there are almost certainly others. We now have lots of questions about our bone tempering. Why did this pot need crushed bone in it when the other two urns from the site don’t have any? Is it cremated human bone or is it animal? (we are casting about for a non-destructive way to answer that one) and what is the relationship between the cremated bone buried in the pot and the bone temper fired into the body of the pot? We can begin to imagine all kinds of fascinating connections between the body of the pot, the body of the person buried in the pot, the food they ate and the other people buried in the ring cairn.


When you look at it after its been properly cleaned and it turns out to be a bit of cremated bone instead. This week I have been finally getting on with cataloguing the pottery from George Rock Shelter in Goldsland Wood. This is one of two sites in the wood where we found bits of Neolithic pottery. I looked at the pottery from the other one, Wolf Cave, in the spring and discovered that although we had quite a few bits of pot, they were all broken pieces of the same bowl. We called this vessel 1 and I posted earlier on in the year about the process of reconstructing the pot as a drawing for publication.

This week I have been working on the pottery from George Rock Shelter. This seems to have taken me an inordinately long time to finish. I wrote my PhD thesis on the Neolithic pottery of Wales so it is not as if I have never looked at all the comparative material before. There were two Neolithic bowls from this site, one of which, vessel 10, was in a good enough state to attempt to draw. The other, vessel 11, looks to have been very similar to vessel 1 from Wolf Cave but it is much more badly broken up.

GD Neo pottery

When we analyse pottery as archaeologists we are looking at evidence of how each particular pot was made and, sometimes, how it was used. There are lots of stages we can identify when a pot is being made. First of all, of course, you need clay, dug from pits or river banks. Where the clay comes from affects what is in it beside just the clay minerals. Most dug clay needs an awful lot of processing to get it as clean as the lovely smooth bags of clay from Stoke on Trent that we buy for the students to practice on. Perversely, once they have got it clean, traditional potters around the world often then start adding ground up stuff to it. This ‘tempering’ is the next stage in making a pot. The temper that is added is any kind of (hopefully) inert material that will not change shape or explode when it is fired. Potters add it for lots of reasons but one thing it does is provide a route out of the pot walls for the steam created during firing.

You can build or mould this clay into any shape you need. Neolithic pottery was all built by hand, the potter’s wheel wasn’t used in Britain until just before the start of the Roman period. It also tends to conform to one of a relatively few standardised shapes, particularly early in the period. These are usually variants on the round-based bowl. Where we have evidence it looks as if they liked to work with big lumps of clay at once. The neat rings of clay that modern night-class potters are taught to make were not a Neolithic technique. Once you have the shape you want then it needs to be left until it is completely dry.

wood firing

This is the next important part of potting. The clay needs to be heated up to above 800 degrees Celsius for a few hours so that it ceases to be plastic and becomes solid and (relatively) watertight. You can do this in a bonfire, the one above has replica pottery I made during my PhD toasting away in the middle of it. I did devote a lot of time to carefully controlling how the fire was built and fuelled to try to make sure that the temperature built up nice and slowly. What this taught me was all of this is less important, if the aim is to stop the pots blowing up in the fire, than tempering them properly in the first place.

Prehistoric pottery like this was almost certainly made as it was needed. There would not have been specialist potters, as there were in the Roman period for example. Making pottery would have been a skill many people had, like making stone tools or cooking, which they could turn to when new pots were required. All these choices about what to do at each stage of making a pot mean that when we see that pots were made in similar ways, we are seeing evidence for a connection between the people who made them. Perhaps they were cousins who had both been taught the techniques their great grandmother used.

There has been a lot of interesting research on how potters skills are learnt and passed on and I have put some of it up on the reading list, particularly Prudence Rice’s fantastically detailed survey and a great paper by Sandy Budden (herself both a craft potter and an archaeologist) and Joanna Sofaer-Deverenski on learning to pot in prehistoric Hungary.


As it says in the weekly newsletter from my son’s school. Lots of different stuff as it happens because, now the exams are finished, we are getting on with sorting out the finds from last month’s dig at Fairy Holes Cave. We had everything properly cleaned by the end of Wednesday. Since then we have been photographing each find and creating a full catalogue of what was found where.

new crem bone web version

With all the mud washed off the bones we found that there was another piece of cremated bone from the entrance of the main cave. It is the central fragment in the bottom row on this photograph. This was found in the same grid square as the three bits we identified on site, clearly part of the same disturbed cremation burial. This is also the same square we found the big sherd of Early Bronze Age collared urn pottery in.

Now the pottery was clean it is obvious that we have found parts of two different prehistoric pots. The big sherd we still think is part of the urn that Musson and his team found in 1946. The rest of this is on display in Clitheroe Castle Museum. I will be taking our sherd to Clitheroe shortly to confirm the match but I’m sure this what it is. This fits with the cremated bone from the same square to show that there was a cremation burial in the urn close to the cave entrance in the Early Bronze Age, probably around 1800 BC.

Grooved Ware web version

The smaller sherd we found first is clearly something different. It is finer, uses a different mixture of raw materials and is decorated with parallel lines. These seem to have been incised into the surface of the clay. It is clearly prehistoric but I am still dithering about what I think it is. I have had the big pottery books open on my desk all week and been poring over the possible parallels. I’m supposed to know about pottery so I can’t help regarding this as a bit of a challenge.

The general shape of the sherd, and therefore the bit of pot that it came from, makes me think it is part of a beaker. This was also my initial identification on site when it was first found. This would mean it ought to date from between 2200 and 2000 BC. However, the colour of the pot and the incised line decoration looks more like Grooved Ware, which would be slightly earlier, somewhere between 2900 and 2200 BC. Either way it is earlier than the Early Bronze Age evidence from Musson’s dig and from our excavations on top of the hill last summer.

mobile phone web version

Of course not everything we found is quite this old. One of my favourite photos from this week is this one of the finds from the area of burning at the top of the main cave sequence. As well as lots of bottle glass and candle ends you can see all the non-plastic parts of a mobile phone. The consensus among the team is that it was a Nokia. I assume that it was destroyed in the fire for all the plastic to have vanished so thoroughly.

Thanks to Megan, Barry, Dan, Emily, Kelly, Nikki and Rob for all their hard work with the records and finds this week.


When we decided to re-excavate Fairy Holes one of the main research questions we wanted to answer was the type of activity that took place here. Musson’s work had given an Early Bronze Age date to the cave and he thought it was probably used for settlement. As other Early Bronze Age caves, for example Fezior Nick up near Settle, seem to be burial sites we had always wondered about this interpretation. Now we are exactly half way through our short excavation we have finds that allow us to come up with a very neat interpretation, pulling together evidence from both our dig and Musson’s work, and answer this question.

Urn and Crem bone

Of course, archaeology being what it is, we will almost certainly be revising this theory on Monday in the light of some new finds. This afternoon Sam found this new sherd of prehistoric pottery just inside the entrance to the main cave. She also found the curved bit of bone next to it. The pot sherd is part of the Early Bronze Age Collared Urn which Musson found in 1946. It is in fact a bit of the collar, the thickened bit around the rim of this type of urn. Now I have seen this I think the sherd we had yesterday, which I thought was Beaker, is part of the same Collared Urn. It comes from the narrow curving neck beneath the Collar (see what I mean about archaeological theories being constantly revised).

The bone is interesting as you normally only get this kind of fracture on long bones when they have been cremated. Early Bronze Age burial archaeology was the topic of Sam’s PhD, she has seen an awful lot of Bronze Age cremated bone, and she was convinced that this was part of a cremation burial. Later on this afternoon, very close to where the first bit was found, she found a second small fragment with unmistakable signs of having been cremated.


The area where Sam found the cremated bone and pottery is near the shovel and trowel in the centre of the photo. This is beneath the limestone rubble which we think was what was left of two dry-stone walls recorded by Musson. He wondered if they were the remains of some kind of shelter within the cave. Now that we have found cremated bone here, I think that these walls were part of a dry-stone ‘cist’ which protected the urn and the cremation burial it contained. Similar structures are known from other Early Bronze Age cave burials in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Everything we have seen so far suggests that, rather than the cave dwellers Musson imagined, Early Bronze Age people used Fairy Holes for burial.


Further into the cave, Anna and Olaf have been cleaning up the vertical section through the cave deposits at the end of Musson’s excavation trench. We have photographed this and they are now working on a measured drawing and interpretation to compare with Musson’s publication of the same section. Once it is completely recorded we will also be taking a sequence of samples for pollen analysis here to link up with the similar series we have taken at all the other sites.


In the west cave Connie and Cate have come down onto an almost completely sterile layer of clay at the base of the section they are digging. This site probably only needs one more day’s work to get out the rest of the deposits and draw the vertical section at the back. Further down the hill, Pete, James and Rob have been exploring the new cave we discovered yesterday. This is still a bit of a work in progress at the moment so I will wait to blog about this until we have dug a bit more and, importantly, we have some nice pictures to look at.

Wildlife of the day was a very relaxed Kestrel sitting on a branch by the road as we drove into work this morning. Apropos of the discussion in the bus on the way home, Jon Pertwee is clearly the best Dr Who, who is this Sylvester McCoy bloke anyway?



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.


This week we have been role playing with the 3rd year students. Nothing to do with dressing up in plastic armour and pretending to be an Orc. This is (mostly) serious stuff about the management of archaeological projects. Over the past few weeks students on our ‘Introduction to Professional Practice’ module have been writing a project design for a small excavation in or around the Roman site at Ribchester to answer the research questions of their choice. By today they had all successfully costed a four week project within budget and so this morning we tried to simulate the running of these projects.

The students worked in groups with a site plan in front of them while my colleague Jim and I sat in the middle of the room throwing spanners in the works. For every virtual day of their dig the project teams wrote out what they were going to do that day and then we told them what archaeology they uncovered as a result of those decisions. As on a real dig, the main focus was often on making sure all the imaginary diggers were productively employed. As they were pretending to dig in the environs of a Roman fort, keeping up with the finds processing quickly became a big headache too.

Fantasy find of the day was a parade helmet fragment from one of the pits. Fortunately everyone had left a bit of spare cash in their budgets for conservation.

Back in the (relatively) real world of archaeology I have been working on the pottery from the cave excavations in Goldsland Wood we carried out between 2005 and 2007. So far I have examined all the sherds from Wolf Cave. This is interesting as they are all parts of the same Early Neolithic bowl and, of course, Wolf Cave is one site where we don’t have any Neolithic radiocarbon dates for the burials.


This is a fairly representative bit of the rim of this pot. The vessel walls were quite thin – around 7 mm thick – showing that it was skillfully made. The clay was tempered with something which has either leached out or was burnt out in the firing, leaving visible pits and holes in the pot surface. This is quite common in Neolithic pottery in Wales and western England. This photo also shows the simple out-turned rim of the pot well. Although we only have about 5% of the original pot left, by comparing it  with other local pottery of this type we can be fairly confident that it was originally a round-based cooking pot. It was probably about 150 mm in diameter with upright walls and a hooked rim to make it easier to handle on the embers of the cooking fire.

Goldsland site A trench pottery plan

This plot shows where the sherds and smaller fragments of the pot were found outside the cave mouth. Neolithic pottery was fired on open fires and so,although it would have been functional pottery, it wouldn’t necessarily have been particularly robust. I think it is possible that the pot we have was originally placed outside the cave in one piece, probably where the north-west part of our trench was. Frost and rain would have soon reduced a whole pot to the rather sad bits and pieces we found. The fact that we have only found parts of one pot, rather than little bits of lots of them, suggests that we are not dealing with the remains of a settlement. I think the pot probably contained something that was left as an offering at the cave. I am still thinking it is likely that at least one of the burials we haven’t dated yet was also Early Neolithic.

I haven’t looked at the pottery from the other two Goldsland caves in detail yet. George Rock Shelter, where all the dated burials were Early Neolithic, seems to have lots of little bits of different types of pottery, including at least three different Roman pots. This will be an interesting contrast with the Wolf Cave pottery.