Handiwork through history


Something as ordinary as pottery can tell us a lot about the past; from tiny shards of clay, archeologists can build a picture of prehistoric society in Ireland

ARCHAEOLOGICAL finds that grab the headlines tend to be dramatic: ornate chalices, stone axes or preserved human remains. But never underestimate the power of more ordinary finds to tell us how our ancestors lived.

Pottery shards can track the spread of ideas through prehistoric cultures. A tiny perforated stone, easily mistaken for a bead, could be the missing link to early textile technology. And an unassuming mound in a field may have been a site of Bronze Age food processing. They are among recent discoveries which were discussed this week at a public conference that highlighted prehistoric creativity and invention in Ireland. Pottery, a familiar archaeological find, has been in Ireland for around 4,000 years and is the hallmark of settlement, says consultant archaeologist Dr Eoin Grogan.

“Because pottery is a basic domestic utensil, it’s found ubiquitously on archaeological sites – it’s used for for everyday things such as cooking and storing water, but it’s also emblematic of the people who make it and therefore it also has very important cultural significance for them, and for us as archaelogists.” He and ceramics expert Helen Roche have sifted through around 250 pottery assemblages unearthed in recent years – each ranging from a few shards to several thousand – analysing their composition, firing, shape, decoration and weight.

“The basic study techniques have not changed in 100 years,” says Dr Grogan. “But now it can also be examined microscopically and using X-ray fluorescence to discover where the clay came from. And there’s a very simple story there: it’s always local.”

Women seemed to have made the pots, and what they produced was functional; there’s no evidence of pottery toys or practice pieces, Dr Grogan notes. “Pots were fired in a pit called a bonfire, and there’s tremendous skill involved in controlling the temperature,” he says. “But in Ireland we have never found a place where prehistoric pottery was actually being fired. That’s a big piece of information we are missing about how it’s done.” But on the up side, the development boom in recent decades has unearthed plenty of other evidence about prehistoric pots, particularly from the early Neolithic (around 4,000 BC) when farmers first arrived.

“Settlement was much more extensive across the country than was previously realised,” says Dr Grogan. “There are parts of the country where we didn’t previously have any evidence of early Neolithic activity, such as the south east, and parts of Cos Cork and Kerry. So that early period is much more extensive than we had previously appreciated.”

And as time moved on, so too did the fashions in pottery-making, particularly in east Ulster and Leinster, when decorated pottery started to turn up. To embellish their wares, potters pressed objects such as bird bones, rope or combs into the wet clay to leave an impression. Such “impressed” ware also turns up on the west coast of Britain, indicating that people used the Irish Sea as a thoroughfare within a common culture on either side of it, explains Dr Grogan. Finds on Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast make a particularly strong case for a culture that viewed the sea as no great barrier. “They produced pottery there that is almost identical to the pottery in Scotland at the same time. I presume people were travelling back and forth with relatively regular contact.”

The next major decorative movement was flat-bottomed “grooved” pottery, which spread from the Orkney Islands from around 2,900 BC, and this time the message seems to have spread even farther in Ireland.

“In the last five years we have found this kind of pottery over a huge area, including the west of Ireland, Kilkenny and north Cork – areas we just didn’t imagine were involved in these international developments,” says Dr Grogan. “It shows just how extensive the contacts remained. Networks of communication were very good even in prehistory.”

Ireland also adopted the “Beaker” style of pottery from the culture that swept through Europe in the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age, coinciding with dramatic changes in social structure. “There’s an increased emphasis on the individual as someone who can have power and prestige in their own right as opposed to the communities, which really dominated social structure before,” says Dr Grogan, again noting that the evidence unearthed recently in Ireland is richer than expected. “We have found this [Beaker] pottery in areas we couldn’t have anticipated, almost throughout the country now and in large quantities.”

But then, inexplicably, around 800 BC, pottery manufacture stopped in Ireland. “We don’t see pottery being produced here for about another 1,500 years after that. People were making very sophisticated things out of wood and leather but they didn’t make pottery. And it’s almost unique to Ireland, this extraordinary change. It’s a puzzle we still have to figure out.”

ANOTHER PREHISTORIC puzzle is how people used Bronze Age “food mounds”, which are dotted around Ireland and contained a pit for warming water with heated stones. “The question arises – what did they do with the hot water?” asks Finn Delaney, a senior archaeologist with the Eachtra partnership. Delaney, John Tierney and Penny Johnston have been reviewing around a decade of mound excavations along the N18, N6, N8 and N7, and have spotted a few clues along the way. In particular, post-holes suggest that tripod structures were used over the mounds.

“We get these tripod shapes surrounding the pit and we are leaning towards the mounds being used for butchery, processing and preservation, that they were a type of Bronze Age shambles,” says Delaney. “There are some fantastic ethnographic photographs showing these tripods with carcasses hanging off them and using the troughs to collect the blood off the carcasses for processing.”

The challenge, though, is that traces of organic material such as blood would be long since gone, so the skill is in deducing activities from the artefact traces that remain. “We are looking for evidence that is quite difficult to find, but we are repeatedly identifying these single features and patterns of features, a lot of interconnected pits,” says Delaney. “Our interest in them has been completely reawakened because they are indicators of Bronze Age activity.”

Give it a whorl How early fashionistas spun their own fibres

Today, we buy clothes and ponder little on the threads that make them. But in Irish prehistory, spinning your own woollen fibres was part of everyday family life. “Before the invention of the spinning wheel, which didn’t reach Europe until the 14th or 15th century, if you wanted to make clothes for yourself you had to use a spindle, and the spindle whorl was the little weight at the bottom to help make the wool revolve,” explains Richard O’Brien, a senior archaeologist with the National Roads Authority. “Generally they were made from stone, wood or bone – the knee-cap is perfect because all you have to do is punch a hole in the top and you have a spindle whorl.”

His work on stone whorls, many of them excavated during road-building schemes, suggests that we may have been spinning in Ireland for longer than previously suspected, but we just haven’t been recognising the evidence. “At the moment we can say spinning is probably coming in the late Bronze Age period, around 1,500 BC, but I would suggest that it came in earlier, about 2,000 BC, the beginning of the Bronze Age,” says O’Brien.

In the 1990s, O’Brien recruited Theresa Diane Mullings to test out excavated whorls. “She found that some of the worst-looking spindle whorls, which were rough in appearance and to handle, were perfect for spinning. So our perception of what an object should be like bears no resemblance to how it functions in a test,” he says. “Also, if they weighed less than 4g they were probably beads.”