Pottery in Archaeology

08 Dec

In a previous post of mine I promised to talk about my favourite subject, that of archaeology and ancient pottery found on some historical sites. It is intended for the beginner who is interested in learning about the subject of pottery in archaeology.


Looking back to my childhood days I remember my mother always telling me to hold my head up or I would look like a bent up old lady before I was much older. I think this must have been the first indication of my becoming an archaeologist because I was always looking down on the ground searching for anything I could find. On the days we visited my Grandma’s I was anxious to go out to the back of her house as there was a huge open area where I spent happy hours searching for anything I could find, bits of pot or tile that I thought looked interesting, there was the occasional glass marbles and old glass bottles which had a marble in the top,does anyone remember these bottles were called “Cadswallup” bottles? I did once find a watch, and a nice brooch in the shape of a butterfly.

Some of the things I found I kept hidden in a box and put them in my small wardrobe,they were my little treasures until my mother found them and threw them all away saying that they were rubbish. But now, that so called rubbish may have been of archaeological or antique interest. When out walking I still keep my now trained eye open for anything which seems of interest such as, unusually shaped stone or flint objects that maybe tools of the past.

After being married and my children were at school I decided that I wanted to go on an archaeological excavation. I contacted the Hereford and Worcs Sites and Monuments Archaeology Dept and was finaly allowed to go as a volunteer to the site where a dig was about to begin at The Droitwich Saltworks. in Worcestershire.I have already written a previous post about this called  “Evidence of the Past ” It was here that my interest in pottery began.So I will now proceed to explain a bit more about the identification first of pottery from the Neolithic period and will continue through to the Medieval period in future posts.

It is the durability of pottery which makes it so important to archaeologists.Pottery was made in Britain from the time of the first farmers in the early fourth millenium bc and was used for religious and domestic purposes. The earliest pots seem to be the simplest and undecorated pots, cups and bowls originally labelled “Windmill Hill Ware”  see Piggott 193l but have subsequently been divided into regional forms.


Pottery,or ceramic,consists of clay that has been chemically changed and hardened using heat to drive out the water present in the molecules. If the clay has been properly fired,it will hold water and will not soften. If however imperfectly fired the clay will revert back to its liquid state on contact with water or anything wet. Clay sources of varying quility are found commonly in Britain and whereas a course clay may need to be fined before use a very fine clay may need to have course material added. These are non clay bodies found in the fabric of the pottery and are either naturally occuring or added.

The former group may be small sand grains,quartz or organic remains,for example,which occur naturally in the clay itself and are derived from the local geology or ecology. The latter have been deliberatly added to the clay to reduce the plasticity and to open the fabric so that during the firing process water can easily escape and will not blow out rapidly and cause the pot to explode. Almost any material is suitable for this and small pieces of crushed pottery(grog) sand, grass crushed flint and shell are all commonly found  in prehistoric pottery

Once the clay has been prepared and the pot fashioned usually from a series of coils as the potters wheel was unknown in Britain at this time,the vessels could be burnished or decorated in a variety of ways. Impressed techniques, where a material such as string or bone was pushed into the damp clay are very common in the neolithic and bronze age, as are incised decoration and applied or raised cordons and lugs. Once the pot had dried it is then ready for firing Like the potters wheel, kilns are unknown in the British neolithic and bronze age so the pottery would have been fired in a bonfire.


The earliest dated pottery in Britain is Grimston-Lyles Hill ware and it is also one of the longest lasting styles. Carbon dates suggest that this style began around 3500 bc and may have remained in use for well over a millenium. The tradition is also distributed widely over Great Britain from Caithness to East Anglia. The pottery is almost invariably undecorated except for vessels with slight fluting,and the majority of the vessels are either carinated or  ‘S’  profiled.  Grimston Ware is usually good,fine and frequently burnished but occasionally inclusions will either have burnt or dissolved out of the surfaces to give a corky texture.

Vessels produced were round- based bowls ,simple hemispherical cups .Rim forms are rarely elaborate and are usually either thickened, simple or rolled.  Applied lugs may be found on the carinations of bowls or the exteriors of cups but they are rare.

Regional variations are found  in a series as geographically widespread as Grimston ware. There are for example, three sub-titles in Yorkshire Grimston ware itself, Heslerton ware, and Towthorpe. 

Neolithic Potteryclick to enlarge picture.

 Grimston ware 1-2, Thirlings Northumberland after Hurrel 3,

Hanging Grimston North Yorkshire,after Piggott 4 , Heslerton Ware North Yorkshire after Piggott 

Towthorpe Bowl Humberside after Piggott. 5

There is a slight difference between Heslerton and Grimston ware in that the ‘ S ‘ profile is slacker with no sharpe carination and with a more open appearence.


Round based bowls in the South West of England can also be divided into local styles. The best known style is probably the Hembury style which dates from about 3300 bc to around the middle of the 3rd millenium and possibly made in Cornwall by proffesional potters and traded in large quantities as far as Wessex and beyond. Course wares of this style are usually locally made imitations of the finer vessels.

Hembury ware from Carn Brae,Cornwall (After Mercer) also characterized by horizontally perforated lugs often have expanded ends which are known as ‘trumpet lugs’  The rim forms are often simple or slightly rolled. The vessel forms are either simple open bowls,or more rarely, carinated bowls and have an upright neck.

The Windmill Hill pottery so named after the neolithic causeway enclosure in Wiltshire England, dates from the early to the middle of the 3rd millennium and is characterized by its baggy profiles, with simple rounded rims which are occasionally thickened and small oval or circular applied lugs can be found on the exterior of the vessel.Decoration is rarely found on Windmill Hill ware.However if found it is simple and consists of small dots or short incisions which are usualy below the rim either internally or externally.

Windmill Hillclick to enlarge picture

Windmill Hill Pottery baggy profiles 2 and 3 with simple rounded rims.


There are several named decorated wares such as the Whitehawk style from the causewayed enclosure East Sussex,The Abingdon style from the causewayed enclosure on the Thames gravels and The Milldenhall style after a settlement site in the fens of East Anglia

Decorated potteryAbingdon and Mildenhall Pottery

1 and 2 Abingdon style pottery.

3 and 5 Mildenhall style pottery.

 Abingdon style characterized by bipartite bowls and sometimes having applied lugs and handles.Rims are thickened and often rolled also decorated with oblique incisions or twisted cord impressions. Deep pots and simple bowls are also present.

The Mildenhall style is a little more elaborately decorated ‘ S ‘ profiled bowls predominate the style,the pots often deep with rolled and thickened rims. Rims,necks,shoulders and bodies may have decoration with oblique incisions or impressions sometimes extending to the body of the pot.

Decorated pot 2 

                                                  Whitehawk style once again ‘ S ‘ profiled,closed and simple bowls with everted,thickened and simple rims. Simple oval lugs are common and maybe perforated. Stabs and incisions are the two most decorations evident.Comb cord and fingernail impressions are also found.

Neolithic Burnished Pottery Sherd  Neolithic burnished pottery sherd.

Sherds Early neolithic bowlSherds from an Early Neolithic pot.

Early Neolithic Pot 4,000 BC Early Neolithic Pot 4,000 BC

Decorated bowlEarly Neolithic Decorated Bowl.


Posted by on December 8, 2012 in Archaeology, Archaeology and Pottery


12 responses to “Pottery in Archaeology

  1. carlos

    December 9, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I’ve often wondered about round-bottomed bowls and amphora. It seems round-bottomed or pointed items would have a tendency to roll over and would require a support to remain upright. Is there an advantage to a round bottom?


  2. nutsfortreasure

    December 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Loved the lesson and post!
    We hunt for TREASURE of the past long ago as well as yesterdays 🙂
    I want to be a part of a HUGE dig some day


    • ritaroberts

      December 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm

      So pleased you enjoyed learning about ancient pottery. Thanks for your kind comments


      • nutsfortreasure

        December 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm

        🙂 Loved the story and we love digging up old bottles, clay and coins 🙂


  3. Heath

    September 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Excellent site I have been finding sherds of black quartz rich pot in my excavations I was told they were elate iron age I think they are of an earlier date. HISTORY OF A BECK: Iron age pottery new piece Stainsby beck


  4. Misty Elliott

    April 30, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Hi Rita, Came across your blog while trying identify a pottery piece of good size discovered in south Wales near Rhossili but not sure where to turn. Can you point me in the right direction? I’ve looked at many pictures and guides to match up, but not finding a really good match. Just decided I’ve have to just start asking questions somewhere :). Can send pictures anywhere. Thanks for your help! p.s. the closest thing I’ve seen the Roman grayware, but that’s a completely untrained eye.


    • ritaroberts

      April 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      Hello Misty Elliott If you would like to send a couple of photo’s I will try and identify the pottery you mention. If I can’t just by a photo I will put you in touch with some one near to you.


      • Misty Elliott

        April 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm

        Thanks so much for your response, I really appreciate. I can send you pictures. Shall I email them directly? You should have my email to send me yours? Thanks again.


      • ritaroberts

        April 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm

        Hello again Misty.If you contact Cosmeston Archaeology on and ask for Alice. She dealt with the pottery from the excavation she or someone there will be able to help. They may direct you to Cardiff University or put you in touch with a branch nearer to you. Please let me know if you have any success. Good luck


      • Misty Elliott

        April 30, 2014 at 8:11 pm

        Much thanks, Rita. Really grateful for your help.


  5. dave lambert

    October 13, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    rita, thanks for the post, i was looking for info on medievil pottery, the life and times of a potter kind of stuff, read all of the post. thanks for taking the time


    also , do you have any links or info on techiques? looking for help on my work for glazing and basil thumbing?

    thanks dave


    • ritaroberts

      October 15, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      Hello Dave, There is a good article online if you Google the following heading. “.BASIL THUMBING-MEDIEVAL POTTERY “



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