Grooved ware

Grooved ware is the name given to a pottery style of the British Neolithic. Its manufacturers are sometimes known as the Grooved ware people. Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.[1]

The diagnostic shape for the style is a flat-bottomed pot with straight sides sloping outwards and grooved decoration around the top. Beyond this the pottery comes in many varieties, some with complex geometric decorations others with applique bands added. The latter has led some archaeologists to argue that the style is a skeuomorph and is derived from wicker basketry.

Grooved ware pots excavated at Balfarg in Fife have been chemically analysed to determine their contents. It appears that some of the vessels there may have been used to hold black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which is a poison and a powerful hallucinogen.

Since many Grooved ware pots have been found at henge sites and in burials, it is possible that they may have had a ritual purpose as well as a functional one. Grooved ware comes in many sizes, some vessels are extremely large, c. 30 gallons, and would be suitable for fermentation. The majority are smaller, ranging from jug- to cup-size, and could be used for serving and drinking. The theory that the first British farmers (c. 4000 BC) had the knowledge and ability to make ale from their crops with their pottery appears to be controversial and not yet widely discussed by the archaeological community.

The earliest examples have been found in Orkney and may have evolved from earlier Unstan ware bowls. The recent excavations at nearby Ness of Brodgar have revealed many sherds of finely decorated Grooved ware pottery, some of it representing very large pots. A large number of drinking vessels have also been identified. The style soon spread and it was used by the builders of the first phase of Stonehenge. Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance in recent excavations at Durrington Walls and Marden Henge in Wiltshire. Here, the feasting would have involved drinking ale and eating pork. Smaller quantities of Grooved ware have been found at the nearby site of Figsbury Ring.

Grooved ware was previously referred to as Rinyo-Clacton ware, first identified by Stuart Piggott in the 1950s and named after sites where it was found. Rinyo is a neolithic settlement on the island of Rousay, Orkney. The site at Clacton now lies under the sea.

One way the tradition may have spread is through trade routes up the west coast of Britain. What seems unusual is that although they shared the same style of pottery, different regions still maintained vastly different traditions. Evidence at some early Henges (Mayburgh Henge, Ring of Brodgar, Arbor Low) suggests that there were staging and trading points on a national 'motorway' during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. This evidence perhaps explains how Cumbrian stone axes found their way to Orkney.

Unstan ware, a variation on grooved ware, emerged in Orkney. The people who used Unstan ware had totally different burial practices but managed to co-exist with their Grooved ware counterparts. Some hybrid chambered cairns have emerged in this region, containing architectural features of both the Maeshowe subclass and the Orkney-Cromarty stalled subclasses of cairn.

Rim sherd (FindID 481885-364827)
A rim sherd of a large grooved ware urn from Cornwall


  1. ^ Richard Bradley The prehistory of Britain and Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-521-84811-3, p. 134.

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Barnhouse Settlement

The Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement is sited by the shore of Loch of Harray, Orkney Mainland, Scotland, not far from the Standing Stones of Stenness, about 5 miles north-east of Stromness.

It was discovered in 1984 by Colin Richards. Excavations were conducted between 1986 and 1991, over time revealing the base courses of at least 15 houses. The houses have similarities to those of the early phase of the better-known settlement at Skara Brae in that they have central hearths, beds built against the walls and stone dressers, but differ in that the houses seem to have been free-standing. The settlement dates back to circa 3000 BC.Pottery of the grooved ware type was found, as at the Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. Flint and stone tools were found, as well as a piece of pitchstone thought to have come from the Isle of Arran.

The largest of the original buildings was House 2. It was double-sized, featuring a higher building standard than the other houses and unlike the others (rebuilt up to five times) seems to have remained in use throughout the inhabited period of the settlement. The houses were clustered around a central open area which was divided into areas for making pottery and the working of flint, bones and hides. Evidence suggests that Barnhouse was abandoned around 2600 BC.After Barnhouse ceased to be occupied, another structure was added, partially on top of the earlier building plans. This building (known as Structure 8) had a room about 7 m (23 ft) square with walls 3 m (10 ft) thick and an entrance facing towards the north west so that the midsummer sunset shines along the passageway, with similarities to some chambered cairns. The structure was surrounded by a clay platform. The entrance through this was aligned with Maeshowe. The structure is assumed to have served as a ceremonial site rather than as a dwelling. It is thought to be closely linked with the nearby Stones of Stenness. Some of the hearth slabs from the structure may have been moved to the Stones.This site is accessible to the public via a footpath from the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Brimble Pit and Cross Swallet Basins

Brimble Pit and Cross Swallet Basins (grid reference ST512505) is a 154.3 hectare (381.3 acre) geological Site of Special Scientific Interest between Wookey Hole and Priddy in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, notified in 1987.

The site covers the two adjacent karstic basins draining into Brimble Pit and Cross Swallet. These are the two best defined of the belt of large shallow closed depressions which account for the total topography along the southern edge of the Mendip Hills. The Brimble Pit depression has a large old lake sediment floor now pitted with sinkholes, while the Cross Swallet Basin feeds to a single active sinkhole around which are well preserved terraces of both rock and sediment. Both depressions have marginal cols feeding to overflow channels now permanently dry. The site also contains important Pleistocene/Quaternary mammal remains within

sediments infilling former caverns exposed on the north east face of Westbury Quarry.The swallet was excavated by William Stanton between 1991 & 1992 for spelaeological purposes. However, archaeological material was discovered, leading Stanton to separate the deposits he was removing and examine them for archaeological material, which included 42 sherds of Grooved Ware pottery and a polished greenstone axehead.The area is included in the Cook's Fields Nature Reserve run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust.

Figsbury Ring

Figsbury Ring (grid reference SU188338) is an 11.2 hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest in Wiltshire, notified in 1975. It is owned and managed by the National Trust.

Links of Noltland

Links of Noltland is an archaeological site near Grobust Bay on the north coast of Westray in Orkney, Scotland. The site contains the remains of both a Neolithic village and later Bronze Age dwellings.

Excavations at the site (HY428492) in the 1980s found a Neolithic building, which is now in the care of Historic Scotland who are funding further excavation. In 2009 the Westray Wife was discovered, a lozenge-shaped figurine that is believed to be the earliest representation of a human face ever found in Scotland. The face has two dots for eyes, heavy brows and an oblong nose and a pattern of hatches on the body could represent clothing. Archaeologist Richard Strachan described it at the time as a find of "astonishing rarity". Two further figurines were subsequently found at the site, one in 2010 and the other in 2012, a situation described as "unprecedented" by Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop.There may have been several phases of occupation, as the first figurine was probably carved 2500 – 3000 BCE and one structure has been dated to c. 2000 BCE. Other finds include polished bone beads, tools, and grooved ware pottery. The full extent of the site is believed to exceed the size of Skara Brae on the Orkney mainland. The ruins are being backfilled to protect them from winter storms.

Another 2009 discovery is that of a large building for collective use described as a "village hall". The structure overlooks the main settlement and would have been about 20 metres (66 ft) wide and had walls 3 metres (9.8 ft) thick. Other finds are revealing a remarkably detailed picture of life in the settlement over a long period of time spanning the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. It is clear that the residents farmed crops such as barley, kept livestock such as cattle and sheep and were partial to venison.Nearby are Queen o' Howe broch, The Lum Head chambered tomb and the ruins of Noltland Castle.

Ringlemere barrow

The Ringlemere barrow is an archaeological site near Sandwich in the English county of Kent most famous as being the find site of the Ringlemere gold cup.

Because the metal detectorist reported finding the gold cup, professional archaeologists from Canterbury Archaeological Trust were able to properly excavate the site. This work has revealed a previously unsuspected funerary complex of Early Bronze Age date (approximately 2300 BC) had stood at the site. It is thought that the cup was not a grave good itself, as it was found independent of any burial and away from the centre of the mound as part of the mound material context. It has been suggested by Canterbury Archaeological Trust, that the cup may have been a votive offering placed within the mound during its construction. However, the mound had suffered extensive disturbance due to the actions of burrowing animals and the cup may have been moved from its original position. No contemporary burials have in fact been found at the site although later Iron Age ones have since been found along with a Saxon cemetery.

Excavation work has continued at the site, funded by English Heritage, the BBC, the British Museum and the Kent Archaeological Society. This work has indicated that the now ploughed-away barrow was as high as 5m and had a diameter of more than 40m. The flat-bottomed ditch that surrounded it was 5–6 m wide and 1.35 m deep. Considerable evidence of much earlier Neolithic activity has now been found on the site including by far the largest assemblage of grooved ware in the county. Current theories now focus on the site having been significant long before and after the barrow being built and that the ditch may have been that of an older henge or, more likely, hengiform monument.

Tor enclosure

A tor enclosure is a prehistoric monument found in the southwestern part of Great Britain. These monuments emerged around 4000 BC in the early


Unstan ware

Unstan ware is the name used by archaeologists for a type of finely made and decorated Neolithic pottery from the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Typical are elegant and distinctive shallow bowls with a band of grooved patterning below the rim, a type of decoration which was created using a technique known as "stab-and-drag". A second version consists of undecorated, round-bottomed bowls. Some of the bowls had bits of volcanic rock included in the clay to make them stronger. Bone tools were used to burnish the surfaces to make them shiny and impermeable.Unstan ware is named after the Unstan Chambered Cairn on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands, a fine example of a stalled chambered tomb in a circular mound, where the style of pottery was first found in 1884. Unstan ware is mostly found in tombs, specifically tombs of the Orkney-Cromarty type. These include the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister on South Ronaldsay, and Taversoe Tuick and Midhowe on Rousay.Unstan ware has been found occasionally at sites in Orkney other than tombs; for example, the farmstead of Knap of Howar on Papa Westray. Although more recent excavations in Orkney have found Unstan ware to be a more common feature in a domestic context than previously thought, challenging the interpretation of Unstan ware being mainly from tombs. and in the Western Isles, as at Eilean Domhnuill.Unstan ware may have evolved into the later grooved ware style. This interpretation was originally based primarily on a presumed evolution in pottery styles, from Unstan ware to grooved ware, seen at the settlement of Rinyo on Rousay. D.V. Clarke claimed in 1983 that his investigations at Rinyo had debunked this sequence. John Hedges is another primary proponent of what might be termed the "cultural coexistence" hypothesis, suggesting that although Unstan ware may predate grooved ware, the cultures associated with these styles of pottery lived side-by-side across Orkney for centuries. In this interpretation of the evidence, grooved ware is associated with the builders of the Maeshowe class of chambered tomb. The geographic distribution on Orkney of the two pottery types is as follows: grooved ware is found on Mainland, Sanday, and North Ronaldsay, with Unstan ware found on Mainland and the remaining islands, especially Rousay and Eday. Hedges sums up his view this way:

What is important is an understanding that the neolithic population of Orkney can be divided into two major parts on the basis of some elements of their material cultures. It is probable that they originated from different areas and...there is no difficulty in imagining their ability to coexist.

However, he also notes:

One point that should be made at the outset is that there is no discernable difference in the culture- in the social anthropological sense- of the Grooved Ware and Unstan Ware is only apparent from limited aspects of material culture and the evidence...shows it to have been subordinate to a tribal level of unity which took in the whole of Orkney.

Waulud's Bank

Waulud's Bank is a possible Neolithic henge in Leagrave, Luton dating from 3,000BC.

The Waulud's Bank earthworks are in the North of Luton and are situated on the edge of Leagrave common, with Central Leagrave to the south east and Marsh Farm to the west. The River Lea runs alongside on the western side, its source located within the vicinity of the surrounding marsh. Archaeological excavations in 1953, 1971 and 1982 date the site to around 3000 BC, in the Neolithic period, although there was evidence of earlier mesolithic hunter/fisher activity in the immediate area. The 'D' shape of the earthwork is almost identical to that of Marden in Wiltshire, both sites have a river forming one side, and each produced neolithic grooved-ware pottery. Waulud's Bank lies on a glacial ridge near which runs the prehistoric Icknield Way. Initially it was probably a domestic enclosure used for cattle herding. It has been suggested that it later became a henge monument, although the position of its surrounding ditch outside its timber-faced bank would be unusual. Evidence suggests that the site was briefly re-used in the Iron Age, during the Roman occupation and in medieval times.

The enclosure consists of a bank and external ditch of around 7 hectares with a turf-revetted chalk and gravel bank faced by a wooden stockade. No entrances have been identified. Most external features have been destroyed by a 19th-century gravel quarry on the south, and the irresponsible dumping of tons of chalk and top-soil along the eastern side during building construction of Marsh Farm in the 1970s. Geophysical surveys in July 1985 and January 2009 failed to reveal any very positive indications of internal features.

The bank still stands 2.6 m high in places and on the north side the excavated ditch was 9.2 m wide and 2.1 m deep. Finds included neolithic pottery, animal bones and flint arrow heads (some are on display at Stockwood Heritage Centre,Luton Museum).

The building at the edge of Waulud's Bank was a one time farmhouse called Marsh Farm House, the occupants of which owned the area that later became Marsh Farm.

Windmill Hill, Avebury

Windmill Hill is a Neolithic causewayed enclosure in the English county of Wiltshire, part of the Avebury World Heritage Site, about 1 mile (2 km) northwest of Avebury. Enclosing an area of 21 acres (8.5 ha), it is the largest known causewayed enclosure in Britain. The site was first occupied around 3800 BC, although the only evidence is a series of pits apparently dug by an agrarian society using Hembury pottery.

During a later phase, c. 3300 BC, three concentric segmented ditches were placed around the hilltop site, the outermost with a diameter of 365 metres. The causeways interrupting the ditches vary in width from a few centimetres to 7 m. Material from the ditches was piled up to create internal banks, the deepest ditches and largest banks are on the outer circuit.

The site was bought by Alexander Keiller in 1924 and excavated over several seasons from 1926–1929 by Keiller and Harold St George Gray whose work established it as the type site for causewayed camps as they were then called.

Pottery from the bottom of the ditches was also the type style for the Windmill Hill culture. Later occupation layers contained early Peterborough ware, then the later Mortlake and Fengate varieties. Large quantities of bone, both human and animal, were also recovered from the ditch fill. The camp remained in use throughout the rest of the Neolithic with Grooved ware and Beaker potsherds having been found in later deposits. A Bronze Age bell barrow was later built between the inner and middle rings.

Michael Dames has proposed a composite theory of seasonal rituals in an attempt to explain Windmill Hill and its associated sites: (West Kennet Long Barrow, the Avebury henge, The Sanctuary, and Silbury Hill).

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