Ness of Brodgar project finds 5,000-year-old fingerprint

The Ness of Brodgar first came to light in 2002, when archaeologists uncovered the massive complex of Neolithic buildings, along with pottery, bones, and stone tools. However, this is the first fingerprint discovered at the site.

Archaeologists have identified the impression of a fingerprint on a pottery sherd uncovered at the Neolithic site of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, which offers a direct link to an individual living 5,000 years ago.

The discovery was made during the post-excavation analysis of an assemblage of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware ceramics recovered from an excavation trench at the Ness of Brodgar. The investigation of the site has been run by the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands since 2006.

Ceramics specialist Roy Towers was examining a pottery assemblage when, on close inspection, he observed what appeared to be the marks of a fingerprint on one of the fragments, which would have been made while the clay was still wet.

An image of the fingerprint captured using Reflectance Transformation Imaging. Image: Jan Blatchford/UHI.

A technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) was used to confirm and record the suspected fingerprint. The process involves photographing the find numerous times under different lighting, and combining the images to produce an extremely detailed model of the subject.

This is a significant discovery, as it is the only fingerprint identified at the site so far. However, ancient fingerprints are not rare occurrences in the archaeological record, due to the ubiquity of pottery throughout prehistory.

Nonetheless, the analysis of the print could reveal insight into the potter’s age and gender, and contribute to ongoing research into the archaeological significance of fingerprints.

‘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,’ said Nick Card, the excavation director. ‘But this discovery really does bring these people back into focus.’

He added: ‘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.’