Ancient potters at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, left their own unique mark, their fingerprints, for us to discover 5,000 years later – Scotsman comment

Scotland’s ancient civilisations can seem elusive, lost in the mists of time.

The fingerprint of the 13-year-old boy left on a piece of prehistoric pottery in Orkney. (Picture: UHI Archaeology Institute)
The fingerprint of the 13-year-old boy left on a piece of prehistoric pottery in Orkney. (Picture: UHI Archaeology Institute)

But every now and again comes a discovery that helps us see them as the humans, much like us, that they really were.

New research has established that a fingerprint left on a 5,000-year-old piece of pottery in Orkney was likely made by a 13-year-old boy.

The shard was discovered at Ness of Brodgar, which was once a substantial complex of monumental buildings where celebrations of important political and celestial events are believed to have taken place.

The print was one of a number left by people of various ages on shards found in the area, which experts believe suggests that the site may have been used to teach pottery to young people.

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This theory has also been suggested about similar fingerprints, also left by different age groups, that have been found on Bronze Age pottery in the Levant.

In about 3100 BC – at around the same time as the first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were being erected at Stonehenge – Ness of Brodgar was home to a major settlement with buildings surrounded by a large stone wall.

Evidence of tiled roofs, coloured walls and numerous examples of decorated stone have been found there, more than hinting at the presence of a relatively advanced civilisation.

But while great monuments built long ago can be impressive, fingerprints left by people teaching and learning a vital, everyday craft feel more emotive, more personal.

And it’s about as close to touching hands with the past as it’s possible to get.

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