Ask Greg: flints and hand-built pottery

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Category: 
Excavation
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Prehistory

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Greg Speed

Flints and hand-built pottery are common finds on prehistoric sites. Do we ever learn anything new from them?

Lithics—mostly worked flint—and pottery, are generally the only materials we find from early prehistoric sites. They usually provide broad dating evidence and can give some impression of activities that were taking place. For instance, different flint tool assemblages can indicate whether people were butchering meat, or carrying out other tasks such as preparing implements for hunting, whilst Grooved Ware pottery immediately tells the excavator that they’re dealing with a later Neolithic deposit. However, every so often, finds such as these can lend an insight into other, less tangible aspects of prehistoric life.

To give an example from one of my own projects, in 2007 we excavated an Early Bronze Age barrow near Osset, in West Yorkshire. At the centre of the barrow were three cremation burials in rock-cut pits. One was accompanied by a small accessory vessel of a type commonly known as ‘pygmy cups’ in older literature. Several hundred of these objects are known, all of which are generally different in design, decoration and size. The Osset example was characteristically distinctive in shape and adornment, and while lying in the ground everyone remarked that it resembled a very small crashed flying saucer! It contained the cremated remains of a woman aged over 36-years old, along with some charred plant remains and fragments of pig bones, perhaps offerings burned with her on the funeral pyre.

Another excavation in 2007, at Stanbury near Haworth, to the north-west of Osset, found a cremation burial in an Early Bronze Age Collared Urn accompanied by an accessory vessel almost identical to the one from Osset. The two burials provided similar radiocarbon dates of 1920–1750 cal.BC (Osset) and 1960–1780 cal.BC (Stanbury). Finding two near-identical vessels was unusual, but because they were relatively close together (30km), this didn’t provoke too much comment.

A couple of years later, I was flicking through an old issue of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society Prehistory Research Section Bulletin (yes, some people do that!) and spotted a short article by Terry Manby on a 1907 Goss china replica of an ‘Ancient British Urn found near Aysgill Force, Hawes, 1897’. The accompanying illustration shows a pot almost identical, even in quite small details, to the Osset and Stanway accessory vessels. Debbie Hallam was studying accessory vessels and kindly offered to look at all three vessels. She confirmed that they were indeed extremely similar with near-identical decoration and appeared to have been made by the same hand. You can compare the Stanway and Hawes vessels to the Osset example shown here by following the links below (Richardson and Sanderson 2008, and Manby 2000).

To go back to the original question, what new information can this tell us? Firstly, three near-identical ‘pygmy cups’ is a unique discovery, whilst these ‘unique’ vessels were perhaps not as individual as was previously thought. It now seems likely that they were made in number, which further indicates the presence of a specialist potter. It certainly casts doubt on any idea that they were made especially for the burials in which they were found. Secondly, the vessels were evidently not made for use either by an individual or single community, but traded (or at least transported) over quite large distances across the Pennine Dales. Hawes is 80km from Osset as the crow flies, much further using any practical ground route, so several days’ walk in the Early Bronze Age. This tells us a lot about connections between communities in Early Bronze Age Yorkshire.

Further reading:

Manby, T. G. (2000) Goss China and a Bronze Age Accessory Vessel from Aysgill, Wensleydale. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Prehistory Research Section Bulletin 37, 14. Free to download at https://www.yas.org.uk/Sections/Pre-History/Pre-History-Publications   

Richardson, J. and Sanderson, I. (2008) Bronze Age Collared Urn burial discovered in Stanbury. Yorkshire Archaeological Society Prehistory Research Section Bulletin 45, 60. Free to download at https://www.yas.org.uk/Sections/Pre-History/Pre-History-Publications 

Richardson, J. and Vyner, B. E. (2011) An exotic Early Bronze Age funerary assemblage from Stanbury, West Yorkshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 77, 49-63.

Speed, G. (2015) Excavations at Mitchell Laithes Farm, Osset, West Yorkshire. NAA Monograph Series 1. Barnard Castle: Northern Archaeological Associates.

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