Tangible traces of a potter working at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney more than 5,000 years ago have been revealed thanks to the discovery of a Neolithic fingerprint preserved on a fragment of clay pot.
The find was made by ceramics specialist Roy Towers, who spotted the print while examining large quantities of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware sherds that had been recovered from a single trench on the site. Investigations at the Ness – which is home to a monumental complex of buildings that forms part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site – have been run by the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) since 2006.
To confirm and record the possible fingerprint, Jan Blatchford from UHI then used a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which involves photographing an artefact from every possible angle, and combining the images to produce an extremely detailed model of the subject that can be closely examined on screen. This process provided clearer detail of the now-unmistakable fingerprint. While fingerprints are not rare occurrences in the archaeological record, due to the ubiquity of pottery throughout prehistory, this is a significant discovery as it is the first fingerprint ever to be identified at the Ness of Brodgar.
Further analysis of the print will contribute to ongoing research into the identification of archaeological fingerprints, and may reveal more details of the anonymous potter thanks to known variations in fingerprint patterns based on sex and age. For instance, men’s fingerprints tend to have broader ridges, and, as a person grows, the distance between the ridges tends to increase, meaning the wider the ridges the older the person is likely to be.
These trends are based on modern fingerprint analyses, but they were recently used to assess fingerprints found in 7,000-year-old red ochre paintings from the Los Machos rock shelter in southern Spain (the results were published in Antiquity last year). Using these techniques, researchers from the Universities of Durham, Granada, and Barcelona were able to establish that these ancient fingerprints were probably made by two different painters: one a man, who was at least 36 years old, and the other a young girl, probably aged between 10 and 16.
Commenting on the discovery, Nick Card, the director of excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, said: ‘Working on such a 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.’