Neolithic Fingerprints At The Ness Of Brodgar!!!!

By Bernie Bell

I signed up to receive the Newsletter from the Ness of Brodgar Trust , and have just received the most recent issue – put together by Sigurd Towrie – giving details of the dig this year and including an item telling of not one, but three fingerprints found on a piece of ceramic previously discovered at the Ness!!!

To me this find is more than interesting – but it’s probably best if I hand over to them as knows to explain about it………

Analysis suggests two young men left fingerprints on Ness of Brodgar pottery fragment

Analysis of Neolithic fingerprints from the Ness of Brodgar has revealed details of two individuals who left their mark on a clay pot 5,000 years ago.

In April, a fingerprint was found on a pottery sherd recovered during the ongoing University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute excavation of a Neolithic complex in Orkney’s West Mainland. Further scrutiny of a digital model created by ceramic specialist Jan Blatchford revealed another two prints.

The Neolithic potter’s fingerprint on a sherd of pottery recovered at the Ness of Brodgar excavation site in Orkney. (Jan Blatchford)

The prehistoric fingerprints were examined by Professor Kent Fowler, director of the University of Manitoba’s Ceramic Technology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada. Only two were sufficiently detailed to analyse, the results revealing that two Neolithic males left their mark on the wet clay vessel.

Fingerprint components are known to differ according to age and sex. The distance between ridges, for example, increases as an individual grows, while male ridges are usually broader.

By measuring the density and breadth of the fingerprint ridges, and accounting for the shrinkage of the clay during drying and firing, Prof Fowler determined that one impression was left by an adolescent or adult male between the ages of 13 and 20 years old.

The second belonged to an adult male between 15 and 22.

Prof Fowler explained:

“Although the prints exhibit identical average ages, there is little overlap in the ridge values between the two measured prints. This suggests one print was made by an adolescent male and the other by an adult male.”

He added: “Ethnographic and experimental accounts of hand-building techniques indicate that hands are normally only placed within closed-form vessels when fashioning roughouts and while manipulating the object to modify the exterior; wiping, smoothing, burnishing, etc. External prints can accrue during shaping or when handling the vessel after the roughout is completed, but when the clay is still leather hard and will accept prints.

“In this instance, it is most likely that there were two printmakers and the interior print was left by the potter. At this stage we cannot determine whether the older or younger potter was responsible for shaping operations.”

An image of the fingerprint captured using Reflectance Transformation Imaging . (Jan Blatchford)

Nick Card, the director of the Ness of Brodgar excavation, commented:

“With well over 80,000 pottery sherds found at the Ness of Brodgar, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the people behind them. This single sherd has brought two back into the spotlight and given us an unparalleled glimpse into life at the Ness complex 5,000 years ago.

“It also raises many questions. The creation of this pot involved an adolescent boy – did he fashion the vessel or was he just involved in the manufacturing process, perhaps overseen by a more experienced potter? Were all children engaged in the creation of pottery from an early age or was it a task that involved a select few? Were different types of vessel created by different people within the household or community?

“The analysis has much wider implications in the study of Neolithic ceramics, but we will need many more fingerprint examples before any firm conclusions can be drawn.”

For more details about the Ness of Brodgar, see

Interested in visiting the Ness of Brodgar? YAY!!!!  THE NESS DIG IS HAPPENING THIS YEAR!!!!!

Ness of Brodgar credit Bell

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7 replies »

  1. Friend Howie (Firth) emailed, commenting on this article. I asked if it was OK for me to reproduce his observations as I think he introduces another interesting aspect to this discovery. He said ’yes’ – so here are Howie’s thoughts on it………

    “I was fascinated to read how the analysis of the fingerprints revealed the age and sex of the people who made them.
    I was particularly interested in their being male, as early pottery has been thought by various people – including Prof. Gordon Childe, the excavator of Skara Brae – to have been the work of women. I’m not sure how Childe came to this conclusion, but it fits so well with the idea of clay being a discarded part of the living (female) earth, and so women having the role of looking after it through its transformation into pottery (which can often be female-shaped).
    On the other hand, even if women were the first potters, it might be that at a certain stage, the picture of clay could have developed further so that it was regarded as dead material, and sufficiently separated from the living earth for it to be permissible for men to be involved in its further transformation.”

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