Evidence of rare Neolithic textiles discovered in Orkney

Archeologists discover 5,000-year-old pottery fragments at Scottish dig site, offering new details about how Neolithic people used textiles to make tools and clothing

  • Researchers discover ancient pottery fragments on islands off the Scottish coast
  • They showed multiple imprints suggesting they had been used with textiles
  • The outer part of the pottery showed signs of having been conjoined with rope
  • The inner part of the fragments contained the imprint of cloth, potentially from their original potter’s clothing 

Archaeologists have found new evidence of ancient textiles making in Orkney, Scotland, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 5,000 years ago.

The discovery, only the second of its kind in Scotland, came from a fragment of pottery with an impression of a cloth stamped into its surface, found at Ness of Brodgar. 

The site is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site on the small island archipelago off the northern coast of Scotland. 

Researchers in Orkney, Scotland discovered 5,000-year-old pottery fragments showing signs of textile use to both bind objects and used as clothing by potters

Because it’s rare for organic material from prehistory to survive outside of very specific oxygen-free conditions, researchers studying Neolithic textiles have generally had to rely on secondary evidence like pottery fragments.  

This latest discovery came from the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), which in 2019 began working to find pottery fragments with these types of impressions on them, known as ‘sherds.’

The team used a technique called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) to examine the sherds, which involves taking multiple photographs of them with a slightly different angled source of light in each frame. 

These images were analyzed by a computer program that created a highly-detailed digital image of the sherds, that could be more closely examined than the real physical fragment.   

RTI analysis of the outer face of the sherds suggested multiple fragments had been ‘co-joined’ with a cord cloth, possibly in the shape of a basket-like object.

Using an analysis technique called reflectance transformation imaging, the researchers identified the clear markings of woven rope in the outer surface of one of the fragments, suggesting it had been tied to something in a basket-like fashion

Other fragments found on the site contained the impressions of cloth, which researchers said could have come from clothing worn by the potter who created the vessels, left as they leaned against the vessels while shaping them

The inner face of the fragments had a different patterned impression that researchers believe came from the clothing worn by the potter who made the original piece. 

‘There is no evidence of textile tools available in Neolithic Orkney, suggesting textiles were made by hand, or using tools made with organic materials that have not survived in the archaeological record,’ Ness of Brodgar’s site director Nick Card said.

‘This lack of material culture around textile production can help us to infer what techniques they may have been using.’

The patterns match similar findings at other site’s in the region, that suggest using textiles with clay vessels was a common.  

Orkney is a Scottish archipelago and World Heritage Site off the northern coast of Scotland. The findings there match similar discoveries in other parts of the country that have shown impressions of coiled mats and other textiles incorporated into clay vessels

‘A growing number of base sherds from the Ness have impressions of coiled mats used in the construction of clay vessels,’ Card said.

‘These match examples found at Barnhouse and Rinyo in Orkney and also at Forest Road in Aberdeenshire.

‘All specimens suggest fibre mats of spiral construction that may have eased the turning of the pot as it was formed and even facilitated its transportation whilst it was dried and then fired.’

The announcement of the Orkney discovery comes just a month after researchers in France discovered strands of woven yarn believed to be between 41,000 and 52,000 years old. 

The yarn fragments were believed to have been used to bind simple tools and could have been used in more complex forms of weaving.  

Britain began the move from ‘hunter-gatherer’ to farming and settlements about 7,000 years ago as part of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’

The Neolithic Revolution was the world’s first verifiable revolution in agriculture.

It began in Britain between about 5000 BC and 4500 BC but spread across Europe from origins in Syria and Iraq between about 11000 BC and 9000 BC.

The period saw the widespread transition of many disparate human cultures from nomadic hunting and gathering practices to ones of farming and building small settlements.

Stonehenge, the most famous prehistoric structure in Europe, possibly the world, was built by Neolithic people, and later added to during the early Bronze Age

The revolution was responsible for turning small groups of travellers into settled communities who built villages and towns.

Some cultures used irrigation and made forest clearings to better their farming techniques.

Others stored food for times of hunger, and farming eventually created different roles and divisions of labour in societies as well as trading economies.

In the UK, the period was triggered by a huge migration or folk-movement from across the Channel.

The Neolithic Revolution saw humans in Britain move from groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled communities. Some of the earliest monuments in Britain are Neolithic structures, including Silbury Hill in Wiltshire (pictured)

Today, prehistoric monuments in the UK span from the time of the Neolithic farmers to the invasion of the Romans in AD 43.

Many of them are looked after by English Heritage and range from standing stones to massive stone circles, and from burial mounds to hillforts.

Stonehenge, the most famous prehistoric structure in Europe, possibly the world, was built by Neolithic people, and later finished during the Bronze Age.

Neolithic structures were typically used for ceremonies, religious feasts and as centres for trade and social gatherings.

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