5,000-Year-Old Fingerprint Found on Pottery Shard Unearthed in Scotland

The Ness of Brodgar is home to a massive complex of Neolithic buildings

The find marks the first ancient fingerprint recorded at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site. Jan Blatchford

Around 3000 B.C., a potter in what’s now Scotland’s Orkney archipelago left a fingerprint on a clay vessel. Some 5,000 years later, the mark remains visible, offering a rare glimpse into the ancient ceramic’s creation.

As David Walker reports for the Press and Journal, researchers discovered the print on a pottery shard found at the Ness of Brodgar, an archaeological site that features a huge complex of Neolithic buildings. Though scholars have unearthed a large collection of ancient pottery at the site, this is the first historic fingerprint recorded there.

“Working on such a high-status site as the Ness of Brodgar, with its beautiful buildings and stunning range of artifacts, it can be all too easy to forget about the people behind this incredible complex,” says excavation director Nick Card in a statement. “But this discovery really does bring these people back into focus.”

Ceramics specialist Roy Towers spotted the print while examining a clay shard, reports the Scotsman’s Alison Campsie. Researchers confirmed that the mark was a fingerprint through reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), which combines photographs captured under different light sources to create a detailed virtual model.

The Ness of Brodgar is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999. The cluster of islands in Scotland’s Northern Isles houses two Neolithic ceremonial stone circles—the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar—and a large chambered tomb called Maeshowe, as well as the remains of settlements and other ancient sites.

Archaeologists discovered the ruins of ancient buildings on the Ness of Brodgar isthmus, between the two stone circles, in 2002. Excavations since then have uncovered decorated stone slabs and a large building believed to be a Neolithic temple, as well as the largest collection of late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery in the U.K., notes the Press and Journal. This style of pottery includes drinking cups, buckets, basins and other flat-bottomed vessels that were typically decorated with geometric patterns.

Ness of Brodgar
Researchers first discovered the Neolithic site at the Ness of Brodgar in 2002. S Marshall via Wikimedia Commons under CC SA 4.0

Writing on the Ness of Brodgar’s website, Towers explains that people at the Orkney site probably began producing the Grooved Ware ceramics around 3200 B.C. The practice continued for the next 700 years or so, with pottery styles changing significantly over time. Some of the many ceramic shards found at the site, for instance, featured red, black and white coloring.

The artisans’ work reflects the “talented, sophisticated, puzzling and outlandish (only to our modern minds) souls who made this abundance of pottery,” according to Towers. “And the pottery, even the most humble, crumbliest body sherd, is the key to understanding some of their thinking and gaining access, however limited, to their minds and thinking.”

Per the Scotsman, the Ness of Brodgar site was part of a period of cultural development that began to take shape around 4000 B.C., when farmers from northwestern and northern France arrived in Scotland and spread across the region. Orkney’s inhabitants developed a prosperous cattle farming culture and, between 3300 and 2800 B.C., built monuments and large houses, in addition to creating new art forms like the Grooved Ware pottery.

Per BBC News, ancient fingerprints are not uncommon finds at archaeological sites, which often contain a plethora of pottery. The researchers hope to further analyze the newly discovered fingerprint to determine the gender and age of the potter.

“Although finding the fingerprint impression won’t hugely impact our work, it does give us a highly personal, poignant connection to the people of Neolithic Orkney, 5,000 years ago,” says Card in the statement.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.