Five-thousand years ago, an Orkney potter sat down and began work. In the process of creating their clay vessel, the potter pressed a finger into the wet surface and left an imprint.
That fingerprint is the latest discovery made at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute’s flagship Ness of Brodgar excavation, where a complex of monumental buildings in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site has been under investigation since 2006.
The potter’s fingerprint was noted by ceramics specialist Roy Towers, who was examining a pot sherd from the huge assemblage recovered from the site – the largest collection of late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery in the UK.
Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) was called upon to confirm the suspected print. This sees multiple photographs taken of a subject, each with a different, but controlled, light source. These are combined using computer software to create a highly detailed model of the object that can be lit from all angles and closely examined on screen. The resulting images often reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.
In this case, RTI work by Jan Blatchford confirmed and recorded the only fingerprint encountered at the Ness of Brodgar.
Given the widespread use of clay in prehistory, ancient fingerprints are not uncommon. As a result, research into the archaeological use of fingerprints has been ongoing for a number of years. It is hoped, funds permitting, that analysis of the Ness of Brodgar fingerprint will reveal the gender and age of the potter.
Commenting on the discovery, excavation director Nick Card said:
“Working on such as high-status site as the Ness of Brodgar, with its beautiful buildings and stunning range of artefacts, it can be all too easy to forget about the people behind this incredible complex. But this discovery really does bring these people back into focus.
“Although finding the fingerprint impression won’t hugely impact our work, it does give us a highly personal, poignant connection to the people of Neolithic Orkney, 5,000 years ago.”
For more details about the Ness of Brodgar excavation, see www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk