Tantalising glimpses of the identity of two potters who prepared clay vessels in Scotland thousands of years ago have been revealed thanks to the fingerprints they left behind.  

The faint marks were discovered on bits of broken pottery found at the Ness of Brodgar Neolithic complex on Orkney last April.  

Now a detailed study of the sets of prints has led researchers to conclude that three people were involved in making the pots - and even work out their age and sex. 

The prehistoric fingerprints were examined by Professor Kent Fowler, director of the University of Manitoba’s Ceramic Technology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada. 

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. 

The Herald:

Experts were able to work out the owner of the fingerprints age and sex

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.  

READ MORE: Evidence of 5,000 year old Neolithic fabric found in Orkney

“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.” 

The Ness of Brodgar site has been excavated for more than a decade in a project led by the led by the University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Archaeology.  

The site has yielded evidence of a considerable settlement dating back thousands of years, and encompasses the iconic standings stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar.  

The Herald:

The ring of Brodgar

Other finds include the imprint of Neolithic textiles, also made in the wet clay, human bones, carved stone balls – and macabre evidence of a gigantic feast which saw more than 400 cattle slaughtered and their bones arranged around one of the buildings.  

Nick Card, the director of the Ness of Brodgar excavation, said: “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. 

READ MORE: The world-famous Ring of Brodgar

“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.”