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 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.”
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.”