A Potted Pottery History


The term Palaeolithic was created at the end of the nineteenth century. Its ancient Greek etymology means the ‘Old Stone Age’ as apposed to the Middle and New Stone Ages, which are called the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The Palaeolithic period begins with the first evidence of human technology (stone tools) more than three million years ago, and ends with the major changes in human societies instigated by the invention of agriculture and animal domestication.

What is today the English Channel was during the Lower Palaeolithic a large river flowing from east to west, of which the Thames was a tributary. Consequently, there was no significant aquatic barrier for human ancestors moving easily between continental Europe and England. Archaeological evidence now along the Norfolk and Sussex coast from this time in the form of stone tools shows that early species of Homo were living in the area about 700,000 years ago. But, it is not until about 30,000 years ago that anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, arrived in Britain, just before the extreme cold of the last Ice Age that lasted from about 22,000 to 13,000 years ago. It is generally thought that the Irish and British Isles were uninhabitable during this period, and humans moved further south.


In the Mesolithic period, the successors of Palaeolithic humans adapted to the rapid global warming that constitutes the beginning of our present interglacial period, 11,600 years (circa 9,600 BCE) ago. Their lifestyle nonetheless continued to be based on hunting, fishing and gathering until the arrival of the Neolithic farmers-breeders 8000 years ago (circa 6000 BCE) in France.

The Mesolithic period (or ‘Middle Stone Age’) in Britain dates from just after the end of the Pleistocene (‘Ice Age’) approximately 11,600 years ago, to the beginning of the Neolithic period about 6000 years ago (4000 calibrated years BC).

Hunter-gatherers with stone tools ascribed to the Upper Palaeolithic returned to England about 12,000 years ago as the climate began to warm. By 10,000 years ago the glaciers began to melt and sea levels started to rise. As a result, at about 9,500 years ago Ireland was cut off from Britain and by approximately 6,000 years ago Britain was cut off from continental Europe. This period is called the Mesolithic; during this time the dog was domesticated and there is growing evidence that hunter-gatherers lived more permanently in one spot, or area.

Prehistoric Pottery

In Britain, Prehistoric Pottery is the collective term for any pots made during the Neolithic (Stone Age), (Chalcolithic) Copper age, Bronze Age or Iron Age, in fact any ceramics made prior to the Roman invasion of 43AD (1976 years ago). With possible rare exceptions of continental potters setting up workshops along the south coast during the 1st Century BC, all Prehistoric pottery in Britain was made by hand, without the use of the potters’ wheel.  It was also the Romans who introduced widespread use of kilns, almost all pre Roman pottery in Britain having been ‘open fired’, a process that fires the pots up to a temperature of about 600 to 800 degrees Centigrade, creating serviceable but fragile pottery.

Potted History – link to the website that I got this article from


In France, the Neolithic period, which corresponds to the first farming societies, extended from 8000 – 4200 years ago (6000 to 2200 BCE). During this time, a sedentary way of life replaced the nomadic one. Ceramic technology was used to make pottery and some stone tools, such as axes, were polished.

The Neolithic British Isles refers to the period of BritishIrish and Manx history that spanned from 6000 4500 years ago (circa 4000 to circa 2,500 BCE.[1])The final part of the Stone Age in the British Isles, it was a part of the greater Neolithic, or “New Stone Age”, across Europe.

During the preceding Mesolithic period, the inhabitants of the British Isles had been Mesolithic European hunter-gatherers. Around 6000 years ago (4000 BCE) migrants began arriving from central Europe. Although the earliest indisputably acknowledged languages spoken in the British Isles belonged to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family it is not known what language these early farming people spoke. These migrants brought new ideas, leading to a radical transformation of society and landscape that has been called the Neolithic Revolution. The Neolithic period in the British Isles was characterised by the adoption of agriculture and sedentary living. To make room for the new farmland, these early agricultural communities undertook mass deforestation across the islands, dramatically and permanently transforming the landscape. At the same time, new types of stone tools requiring more skill began to be produced; new technologies included polishing.

The Neolithic also saw the construction of a wide variety of monuments in the landscape, many of which were megalithic in nature. The earliest of these are the chambered tombs of the Early Neolithic, although in the Late Neolithic this form of monumentalization was replaced by the construction of stone circles, a trend that would continue into the following Bronze Age. These constructions are taken to reflect ideological changes, with new ideas about religion, ritual and social hierarchy.

The pre-Indo-European people in Europe were not literate, so left behind no written record that modern historians can study; all that is known about this time period in Europe comes from archaeological investigations. This investigation began amongst the antiquarians of the 18th century, intensified in the 19th when John Lubbock coined the term “Neolithic”. In the 20th and 21st centuries, further excavation and synthesis went ahead, dominated by figures like V. Gordon ChildeStuart PiggottJulian Thomas and Richard Bradley.

The change from a hunter-gatherer to a farming way of life is still contested and not fully understood for England. Some archaeologists believe that the process of becoming Neolithic farmers, that is subsisting on domesticated plants and animals and leading a sedentary lifestyle, was brought about by resident communities taking on these new strategies. Other archaeologists suggest farming in England was affected by new communities coming across from continental Europe replacing the indigenous populations and their hunter-gatherer ways of living. Whatever the outcome of this debate, it was during the Neolithic that some of the ubiquitous funerary monuments were constructed. Long barrows and chambered tombs, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and other substantive earthworks gave way to henges and stone circles of the later Neolithic, such as Stonehenge and Avebury. Some of these structures, certainly Stonehenge, continued to be used and developed into the Bronze Age.

Towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,500 years ago, a number of new features were introduced into England. One was a specific style of pottery, the so-called beaker pottery, and another more significant innovation was the skill to be able to create metals. At first it was copper, but by mixing copper with tin the prehistoric metalworkers created bronze, hence the Bronze Age.

Neolithic Pottery

The first pots known in Britain, Carinated Bowls or Grimston Wares, make their appearance around 6000 years ago (4000BC), and set the trend for the development of other round bottommed forms throughout the Neolithic period: Mortlake Bowls, Unstan Ware; Abingdon Ware and Windmill Hill Ware to name but a few.  It is only with the development of Grooved Ware in the third millennium BC (5000 – 4000 years ago), that we see extensive adoption of flat bottomed pots. Probably originating in Orkney, and possibly in response to the furnishing of houses with flat surfaces, it is Grooved Ware that was in use at places like Durrington Walls and Avebury during the first phase of building at Stonehenge.

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 5500 years ago (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.

One of the oldest pots found in Britain - this would have been used for cooking food about 6,000 years ago

Click on the picture to go straight to the BBC website.

Bronze Age

After Prehistory, which includes the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic, the Bronze Age is the first period of ‘Protohistory’, also called the ‘Metal Ages’. Marked by significant technological and social advances, the Bronze Age was an important step in the evolution of European societies. It is characterized by the use of bronze metallurgy, to create this alloy mainly composed of copper and tin.

Towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,500 years ago, a number of new features were introduced into England. One was a specific style of pottery, the so-called beaker pottery, and another more significant innovation was the skill to be able to create metals. At first it was copper, but by mixing copper with tin the prehistoric metalworkers created bronze, hence the Bronze Age.

Over a period of about a thousand years bronze replaced stone, and such was the quality and quantity of bronze at this time that bronze from England was exported across Europe.

Bronze Age Britain is an era of British history that spanned from 4500 – 2800 years ago (c. 2500 until c. 800 BC.[1]) Lasting for approximately 1,700 years, it was in turn followed by the period of  Iron Age Britain. Being categorised as the Bronze Age, it was marked by the use of copper and then bronze by the prehistoric Britons, who used such metals to fashion tools. Great Britain in the Bronze Age also saw the widespread adoption of agriculture.

During the British Bronze Age, large megalithic monuments similar to those from the Late Neolithic continued to be constructed or modified, including such sites as AveburyStonehengeSilbury Hill and Must Farm. This has been described as a time “when elaborate ceremonial practices emerged among some communities of subsistence agriculturalists of western Europe”.[2]

Iron Age

The Iron Age, which corresponds to the second part of Protohistory, extends from 2800 – 1900 years ago (800 BC to the end of the first century AD). During this period, the regions, corresponding to present-day France were gradually frequented by populations with a prolific written language (Greeks and Romans). The local populations (Celts, Gaul’s, Ligures, Iberians, etc) had little or no writing, on the other hand. Most of our knowledge of these human groups is therefore provided by archaeology, along with a few Greek and Latin texts.

By 300 years ago (the start of the first millennium BC) iron replaced bronze, and so we have the Iron Age. Iron ore was more plentiful than those ores used for the making of bronze, and iron itself was a much harder metal. The use of iron had a great impact on farming practices: iron axes were more efficient at clearing forests for agriculture, and iron ploughs made churning up the soil much easier than wooden or bronze implements. Iron Age communities were not only skilled in producing functional iron implements, metalworkers were highly skilled craftsmen who began producing intricately patterned objects in gold, from jewellery to other ceremonial objects such as shields and helmets.

Towards the end of the Iron Age Gaulish tribes displaced by the expanding Romans in Europe from what is now France and Belgium began to arrive in England. These people were already influenced by the Romans, and it is they that started the Romanisation of Britain, before the ultimate Roman conquest of England in 43 AD (1976 years ago). It is thought that these northern Europeans were responsible for the first hill forts, or oppida, along the southern coastline, such as the very well known Maiden Castle

Links and references

All of the writing above has been cut and pasted from the internet with only a tiny amount of alteration from myself. To find my resource material please look at the links and references below. I have moved bits about to make them make sense and so that they include all information gleaned from source material. The information is written primarily for me to use as an aid memoir. I will be using the research I have gleaned in my blogs. That is where you can find out about what I have learnt and how I have used the information.  For me this whole project is about increasing my understanding and using methods and techniques learnt in my pottery. I am really happy for you to ask me questions though and I will try and find out answers for you.