Category Archives: Prehistoric pottery

VM_365 Day 363 Guest VM curator on (mostly) Prehistoric Ceramics

VM 363Today’s image is another in our series of roundups of posts contributed by our guest curators. This time we are looking at the posts Nigel Macpherson Grant contributed, mainly about prehistoric ceramics. Many of our posts have been based on his extensive knowledge and the detail published in reports and so much material in the VM_365 is based on his work.

A report from an archaeological specialist could appear to be a dry prospect for the average reader, but Nigel’s are always filled with nuggets of information about the potters art or the patterns in form, fabrics and techniques current at any time which make for interesting posts for the VM project. On the left hand side of the picture is Nigel himself, who appeared in Day 2 of the VM 365 project, sorting through boxes in our store for more pottery examples.

On the right of the picture are several examples of the pottery pictures Nigel produced for us, always with an interesting story to tell about how they were made or how they might have been used. The first at the top was a previously unreported Bronze Age Urn which featured on Day 212 of the VM_365 project, the middle image that featured on Day 155, showed how ceramics were influenced by other materials, in this case the stitching on leather containers and the third image from Day 172, shows a finely decorated Neolithic bowl from Ramsgate.

Archaeology depends on the dedication of people who make the detailed study of a single type of artefact their life’s work and the contribution of our friend Nigel to Thanet’s archaeology is immeasurable and continues to grow.

Links to Nigel Macpherson Grant’s contributions to the VM_365 Project:

VM_365 Day 359 North Foreland historic landscape

VM 359

For the image today, Day 359 of the VM_365 project, we have a view in the Our Thanet series, taken from the crest of the hill at Elmwood Avenue and facing east across a valley cutting the chalk downland to reach the sea at Joss bay on the left side, between the Oast House and the North Foreland lighthouse.

The lighthouse stands at the northern end of the North Foreland promontory, an isolated chalk ridge which runs across the horizon in the picture and on which some of Thanet’s most significant prehistoric discoveries have been made. The North Foreland is one of the geographical features of the British Isles whose name (Kantion) was recorded in ancient literature by the 3rd century BC Greek explorer, sailor and navigator Pytheus of Massilia (modern Marseille).

On the valley slope to the right of the lighthouse a very complex cropmark of linear ditches and other features is often visible from the viewpoints around the valley. Excavations over many years have revealed that the cropmarks are the visible indicator of the very extensive prehistoric settlement that occupies the chalk ridge.

At the right hand end of the image, a large residential block marks the site of the former St. Stephens college, where one of the largest excavations took place in 1999 and 2003. Previous VM_365 posts have explored the Neolithic and Bronze Age funerary monuments that were positioned with care to overlook the valley. Close to the new residential block a small Bronze Age round barrow was excavated in 1999. In one terminal of a gap in the circuit, the excavators revealed an unusual burial which had been covered with a large piece of whalebone.

Examples of some of the earliest coins to have been produced by the Iron Age rulers of Kent have been found on the North Foreland, some connecting the area to the dynastic struggles that were affecting the people of Britain and the continent. The extensive Iron Age settlement  produced many interesting finds, including a pair of Iron Bridle bits.

Another series of VM_365 posts explored the fascinating story that is told by the discovery of an Iron Age burial inserted into a large abandoned grain storage pit. Was this a casual burial or a more formal rite taking advantage of the prepared ground of the abandoned settlement? Three blue glass beads worn around the neck of the woman buried in the pit suggest the latter.

Several smaller sites have been excavated when the opportunity arises through house building or redevelopment on the estate that now encompasses the crest of the ridge. These have shown that the ridge was widely settled over a long period of time. One of the most significant finds was a Beaker period burial, discovered only a few centimetres below the drive of a house that had been built in the early 20th century. Archaeological monitoring of the house building plots has also shown that the ridge was heavily terraced while developing the estate and perhaps many archaeological sites were destroyed without record in the past.

The area is certainly one of the most important archaeological landscapes in the Isle of Thanet and much must remain to be learned about this area.

VM_365 Day 358 La Tène style vessel from Fort Hill, Margate

VM 358

Today’s image for Day 358 of the VM_365 project shows a fine, mid to late Iron Age pottery vessel. This vessel was excavated from a pit on an Iron Age settlement site at Fort Hill, Margate in the late 1990’s which has previously featured on Day 82 of the VM_365 project.

The pottery sherds are decorated in La Tène II style and date to c. 250-125 BC. The vessel, probably a product of a local pottery industry in the continental style,  is decorated with Iron Oxide pigment which colours the swirls in the decoration as dark red.  A vessel of a similar style was excavated by Dr Arthur Rowe in 1924 at Tivoli, Margate and featured on Day 226 of the VM_365 project

VM_365 Day 356 Historic Margate ancient and modern

VM 356The image for day 356, which continues our intermittent Our Thanet series is a panoramic view of part of Margate, taken across the roof of the Margate Winter Gardens and facing the terrace of houses standing on Fort Hill. The roof top of the Turner Centre, overlooking the historic Margate Pier can be seen on the far right of the image.

Although much celebrated for its recent arty renaissance in association with the Turner Contemporary Galery and the the Dreamland theme park which opened its doors again this weekend, this area is one of Margate and Thanet’s richest areas for the archaeology of the Iron Age and Roman period.

An Iron Age burial lying in a circular pit cut into the chalk geology was found during the demolition of parts of the former Cobbs Brewery complex and the construction of a  Police Station which stands behind the last buildings at the right hand end of the terrace.

The remains of post built structures and pits also dating to the Iron Age indicated that a settlement had been present and a fine La Tene style decorated vessel found in a large pit nearby demonstrated something of the high status of the settlement.

Behind the houses at the centre of the image, in the area of Trinity Square redevelopment has revealed a dense cluster of Iron Age and Roman features cut into the chalk, these include several storage pits and at least three more pit burials. Roman cremations contained in pottery vessels were found in construction work in the 19th century, in the area behind the right hand end of the terrace of buildings shown in the picture.

The terrace of houses in today’s image follows the crest of one side of the deep valley that carries the Dane Stream to the Bay at Margate. On the downslope beyond the terrace are the subterranean passages of the Margate Caves and the Shell Grotto.

Until it was  sealed in a culvert in the Early 19th century the Dane Stream ran along the base of the valley parallel with the terrace in the image. The water supply for the Reeves and Co. Soda Water plant was drawn from this stream. Nearby, at the junction with Trinity Square and King Street at the bottom the valley is the restored 15th century house, formerly known as the Old House but now called the Tudor House. Adjacent to the house are the remains of a 17th century Malt House, which was  associated with Cobbs Brewery which extended over a large part of the valley slope at Fort Hill.

Margate continues to occupy a place in the nations heart as a quintessential seaside town. The image of the knife we posted on Day 95  shows that even the town’s newer attractions like  Dreamland, restored and re-opened as an attraction to a new generation of visitors produced its own historic artefacts to be  discovered by contemporary archaeologists.

Such a significant gathering place generates its own archaeological footprint and the ancient discoveries from the same area show that the landscape around Margate has been a place of gathering for over two millennia.

VM_365 Day 331 Earliest Iron Age finger marks

VM 331

Today’s image for Day 331 of the VM_365 project shows two views of a sherd of pottery dating to the 10th century BC that was recently excavated at Monkton, Thanet.

The image on the left shows the relatively smooth outer surface of the sherd which came from a flint tempered, burnished vessel from the earliest Iron Age.  The image on the right is of the interior of the sherd and shows three vertical ridges left behind when the Iron Age potter used their three middle fingers to pull the clay into shape while creating the vessel.

These marks allows you to place your fingers in exactly the same place as the potter from the 9th century, someone about whom we know almost nothing, apart from the impression of their fingers left behind in the clay they were working.

A Roman example of finger prints left behind during the construction of a colour coated beaker featured on Day 256 of the VM_365 project.


VM_365 Day 315 Middle Iron Age Pottery lid used in slow cooking, Tivoli, Margate

VM 315

Today’s image for Day 315 of the VM_365 project  shows part of a Middle Iron Age flat and perforated handled lid for a cooking vessel  which came from a small excavation at Tivoli Park Avenue, Margate carried out by the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society.

A series of small test pit excavations by the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society were carried out in the mid-late 2000’s and were designed to find further traces of the Tivoli Roman ‘villa’  which featured  on Day 77 of the VM_365 project  and was previously recorded by Dr. Arthur Rowe.  Little material associated with the villa was recovered but instead the investigations produced a rare sequence of earlier Iron Age activity.

In the uppermost levels of the sequence, in descending order, there was a thin scatter of material confirming Anglo-Saxon, Early-Mid Roman and Late Iron Age activity. Beneath this were increasing quantities of Mid-Late iron Age material (c.200-50 BC), and then beneath that a chalk and cobble floor of, broadly Mid Iron Age date (c.350-200 BC) and, beneath that again, postholes and occupation soil datable to the Early-Mid Iron Age (c.600-350 BC).

One of the features associated with the Middle Iron Age floor produced the lid shown above in the picture on the left. It is part of a handled lid – with the rim at the bottom, and handle at top. The handle is flat and perforated (picture right) which means that the lid was used during the slow-cooking of vegetables or meat, over a relatively low heat.

Roughly made pot lids, using re-worked lower bodies of broken jars are not unknown from Iron Age sites – but a deliberately-made lid, with a ‘steamer-knob’, is rare and tends to confirm that at least in the Middle Iron Age more sophisticated cooking techniques were being employed than the simple roasting of a pig or other animal on a turned spit.

The information and images for this post were kindly provided by Nigel Macpherson-Grant.

VM_365 Day 307 Middle Bronze Age Urn from keyhole site at Westgate

VM 307Today’s image, for Day 307 of the VM_365 project, shows a large sherd from a Middle Bronze Age, Deverel Rimbury style, pottery vessel that was excavated from the enclosure ditch that featured in the post for Day 306.

The sherd is one of eleven fresh conjoining sherds, including five small fragments, made of a characteristic heavily flint gritted fabric. The sherds come from the rim of a large Barrel Urn, measuring approximately 28cm in diameter at the rim and widening below the shoulder. The rim is decorated externally with two parallel rows of fingernail impressions.

The survival of such a recognisable and substantial collection of dateable pottery in a tiny remnant of an ancient settlement, demonstrates the value of observing the deposits that are revealed when construction sites clear a keyhole view into the ancient landscape.

VM_365 Day 303 Iron Age polychrome decorated pottery from Dumpton Gap

VM 303Today’s image for Day 303 of the VM_365 project shows a number of joining sherds from the upper part of an Iron Age  polychrome decorated pottery vessel, which was found in an excavation at Dumpton Gap in the 1960’s.

The image of these joining decorated sherds was digitised from a slide taken by Joe Coy, who directed excavations at the site at Dumpton. The slide is one of a small group in the same archive as the box of finds that we explored in previous posts from Day 292  to Day 301 of the VM_365 project.

The post for VM_365 Day 302 looked at the monochrome surface finishes on two Iron Age sherds, one caused by natural staining, the other by deliberate application of a black carbon pigment.  The vessel shown today exhibits a more complex decorative finish in a rectilinear and geometric style, similar to the Halstatt inspired scheme on the deliberately decorated sherd dating from the Early to Mid Iron Age. The pot is made of a dark grey fabric, whose surface is decorated  using red Iron Oxide pigment  to fill in some of the triangles and stripes that have been scored in a regular geometric pattern over the surface of the clay.

The use of the red pigment to create regular rectilinear geometric decoration is similar to that of another Early to Middle Iron Age sherd from Sarre which featured on Day 198 of the VM_365 project.

Another vessel from Margate, decorated with fields of red iron oxide pigment, was featured on Day 226 of the VM_365 project, although the decorative finish on that vessel is typical of the later curvilinear La Tène decorative style.

VM_365 Day 302 A tale of two sherds

VM 302Today’s image for Day 302 of the VM_365 project is of two Iron Age pottery sherds, both from a similar archaeological period and from the same site near Broadstairs. Both sherds seem to exhibit an apparent surface decoration. However, the origin of the patterns on the surface of each sherd is quite different.

The sherd on the left is from the rim of a simple open-form bowl. The fabric is flint-tempered and the surface has been decorated with a comb, it is datable to between c.500-350 BC. But what are the black streaks on the surface? The sherd has been washed when it was brought from the site but the black colouring survived intact. Is this some form of avant-garde art, with the black colouring applied as a visual contrast to the more rigid but bold comb-decoration?

The answer, as near as our experience can judge, is more prosaic. The pattern is caused by soot-impregnation or staining. One can imagine soot dribbles being created in a rubbish pit, where the sherd has been discarded and imperfectly sealed by earth or other rubbish. Material, wood as cuttings, carpenters shavings, perhaps even cloth or some rotting vegetable matter, is thrown on top and burnt, creating sooty ash. Then the powdery charcoal rich ash, mixed with rainwater, making a thick and rich solution that seeps lower into the pit, dribbling in streams and impregnating the surface of the pottery as it runs over it.

Unlike the sherd on the left, with naturally acquired soot-staining, the sherd on the right is deliberately decorated with a black trellis design, deliberately painted using crushed charcoal or carbon deposits mixed with water, to provide the black colour. The trellis pattern was applied as a horizontal band around the shoulder panel of a large fineware jar. The linear design is typical of the rectilinear motifs current during the Early-Mid Iron Age between c.600-350 BC, inspired by continental rectilinear art-forms in Halstatt style, as opposed to the more curvilinear designs of La Tene type, more typical of the succeeding Mid and Mid-Late Iron Ages between c.350-50 BC.

The two patterning processes, one deliberate and one a fortuitous phenomenon of the deposition of the pot sherd should cause a momentary hesitation for archaeologists before reading all patterning and surface treatments as a deliberate act of decorative symbolism. The archaeologists job is determine the boundaries between the signals from the past and the noise accumulated by the random processes of time.

VM_365 Day 299 Iron Age comb decorated sherds from Dumpton excavation archive

VM 299Today’s image, for Day 299 of the VM_365 project, shows six joining sherds and two other sherds from the decorated shoulder of the same Late Iron Age vessel. The sherds  belong to the pottery assemblage that we have been examining in our VM_365 posts, all contained in the the box of archive from the 1964 excavation at Broadstairs.

The sherds are from a large grog-tempered Late Iron Age ‘Belgic’ style storage jar, where a band of very fine horizontal combing has been applied beneath the plain neck and rim. In the upper part of the combed band there is a panel of diagonal decoration from the tip of the comb. This type of decoration, a narrowish band of diagonal or more commonly crossing diagonals of comb tip impressions, is quite a common occurrence on ‘Belgic’ style storage jars of Late Iron Age or Early Roman date. The sherds represent a vessel that probably dates to some time between 25-75 AD.

Other VM_365 posts exploring the contents of this archive box have been posted on Day 294, Day 295, Day 296, Day 297 and Day 298.

With thanks to Nigel Macpherson-Grant for kindly providing information on this vessel.