Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland (Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 3) by ROSAMUND CLEAL AND ANN MACSWEEN (Editors)
Oxbow Books. 1999. 206 pages, 71 line drawings, 2 photographs, 10 tables. ISBN 1 900188 77 5.

         This collection of fourteen papers (plus Introduction and Gazetteer) arose from a Neolithic Studies Group seminar that took place on a memorably eventful and frosty day in February 1994. As one of the speakers and subsequent contributors to the volume, my comments are those of an active participant in the demi-monde of Grooved Ware studies, and they are offered with the benefit of hindsight. It is with affection to the Editors, and in admiration of their achievement, that these remarks are addressed.

         As Sara Champion commented, in her review of the seminar for PAST in December 1994, only 19 finds of Grooved Ware were known of when Stuart Piggott first defined this pottery as a widespread late Neolithic ceramic tradition in 1936. By 1954, when he expanded the concept to define a 'Rinyo-Clacton Culture', encompassing house styles, types of ceremonial site and bone artefacts as well as pottery in his Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles, the number had risen to 47; and when Wainwright and Longworth presented their reassessment of Isobel Smith’s Grooved Ware ‘styles’ in 'The Rinyo-Clacton Culture Reconsidered' in 1971 (Wainwright & Longworth 1971), it had reached 116. Over the next 23 years this total would virtually triple to 345, with major assemblages emerging from the Orkney Islands, the distribution expanding to encompass hitherto 'blank' areas such as Wales and Ireland, and a good number of radiocarbon determinations becoming available. By 1994 the time was therefore ripe for a fresh re-evaluation. In her Introduction to the volume, Ros Cleal explains that she and co-Editor Ann MacSween were drawn to the challenge of organising such an exercise when they – like others before them – realised that the assemblages on which they had been working, from opposite ends of Britain in southern England and in Orkney respectively, contained some striking similarities. The agenda which they set, for both the seminar and the volume, was 'Grooved Ware: What, Where, When and Why?'. In assessing how well the volume works in helping us to understand this ceramic phenomenon and its broader context, these four questions will be kept in mind.

         The volume was long in gestation - five years from the seminar to the publication - and in the interim, the line-up of contributors changed. Papers by Julian Thomas, on the contexts in which Grooved Ware is found, and by Andrew Jones & Colin Richards, on ways of approaching the study of this pottery, dropped out while six new contributions on a variety of topics were added (by Edwards & Bradley; Gibson; Brassil & Gibson; Simpson; Brindley and Garwood). Furthermore, Ian Longworth changed the topic of his paper from a general review of developments in Grooved Ware studies since 1971, to an examination of 'Grooved Ware' design elements in the enigmatic chalk 'drums’ from Folkton in Yorkshire.

         The published papers are arranged in four sections, with two ('Regional Surveys' and the curiously non-adjacent 'Grooved Ware from excavations') broadly covering questions of 'what?' and 'where', a final section 'The dating of Grooved Ware' dealing with 'when', and a brief (thirteen-page) section loosely addressing the question of 'why?'. (This question is also touched upon in several other papers.) Longworth & Cleal's Gazetteer at the end of the book offers more 'where' information, and not only provides an invaluable update on Wainwright & Longworth's 1971 version, but also demonstrates the continuing inexorable rise in the number of Grooved Ware discoveries, the total having reached 443, plus 34 ‘possibles’, by the time of publication.

         The regional surveys comprise two from southern England (namely Alistair Barclay's on the Upper Thames, and Michael Hamilton & Alasdair Whittle’s on the Avebury area); one from Ireland, by Anna Brindley; one from Scotland, by Trevor Cowie & Ann MacSween; and one covering Yorkshire and northern England, by Terry Manby. (It would, perhaps, be churlish to point out that Ireland and Scotland are somewhat larger than ‘regions’; we will let that pass.) Further information on Scottish finds is offered by Derek Simpson's contribution on Raigmore (Stoneyfield) and by the current author's paper on the Links of Noltland assemblage in the section on 'Excavations', while George Eogan & Helen Roche's piece on Grooved Ware from the Boyne Valley enhances the picture for Ireland. Kenneth Brassil & Alex Gibson's paper on material from Hendre in Flintshire provides the sole contribution on Welsh Grooved Ware (other than Garwood's comments on Welsh dates in Chapter15).

         The 'Grooved Ware in context' section comprises a brief note on the discovery of Grooved Ware in the vicinity of rock carvings on Ilkley Moor by Gavin Edwards & Richard Bradley, and a digest of information on the incidence of Grooved Ware (and other pottery) at timber circles by Alex Gibson, as well as the aforementioned excursus on the Folkton Drums by Ian Longworth.

         The final 'Dating' section consists of two intriguing papers, which offer different perspectives on the chronological ordering of Grooved Ware. The first is an ambitious attempt by Anna Brindley to present an overall sequence for the development of the tradition in Britain and Ireland, using typochronology and radiocarbon dating. The second is a meticulous study, by Paul Garwood, of the same kinds of information as they pertain to southern England. The key difference (apart from geographical scope) is that Garwood’s is situated within, and addresses problems springing from, the Longworth stylistic scheme of ‘Clacton/Durrington Walls/Woodlands/[Rinyo]’, whereas Brindley eschews this in favour of six chronological horizons. We shall return to the relevance (or otherwise) of Longworth’s classificatory scheme later.

         Without doubt, the volume is a 'must-have' for anyone interested in late Neolithic Britain and Ireland. It offers a wealth of information that is concise and well-presented, with numerous, mostly excellent-quality illustrations. It provides us with the first substantive review of Irish Grooved Ware, and a digest of most of the radiocarbon dating evidence from Ireland and Britain that was available at the time of publication, along with a useful discussion of the potential and limitations of using C14 dates for this period of prehistory, given the vagaries of this part of the calibration curve. It also goes into the question of design similarities with passage tomb art (e.g. Barclay, p.19; Brindley, 135-6), and of links with other media (e.g. Longworth’s chapter 9; cf. Kinnes 1995 on the spiral motif, and Bradley 1993, 63-6) – although there is doubtless more that can be said on these topics. Regarding interpretation of the Grooved Ware 'phenomenon', Garwood's contribution is particularly praiseworthy for its level-headed critique of models based on simplistic, courte durée dualisms between cultural orders represented by Peterborough vs. Grooved Ware, or Grooved Ware vs. Beaker use. Furthermore, the Gazetteer - compiled with the help of numerous contributors - represents the fruits of a considerable amount of labour. For all of this, the Editors and contributors are to be congratulated. But to what extent does the volume help us to understand Grooved Ware, either as a ceramic tradition or as part of broader late Neolithic developments?

         As Cleal concedes in the Introduction, the volume does not set out to be a compendium of all that was known about Grooved Ware in the late 1990s: for example, “there is little within these pages on the use and function of Grooved Ware and the likely possible contribution of residue analysis to this..”(p.7) While it is clear that the volume could not have aspired to include an illustrated corpus of all known Grooved Ware (the massive – and mostly unpublished – Orcadian assemblages rendering this virtually impossible), it is nevertheless a shame that there is no overview of the Welsh finds, and that certain key assemblages (such as those from Upper Ninepence in Wales (Gibson 1999), or Barnhouse in Orkney, where one pot from Structure 8 was found set into the floor) are not covered, or are mentioned but not illustrated. In this respect, the absence of Jones & Richards’ seminar paper, which used Barnhouse as its exemplar, is particularly regrettable. Given the undoubtedly justifiable claims for stylistic variability at site, local, regional and national levels, it would have been useful to see more illustrative evidence of this.

         Similarly, as regards radiocarbon dating, it would have been useful to have seen a complete list of all the relevant radiocarbon dates for Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland, and to have had a critical evaluation of all of them, not just those from Ireland and southern Britain. Indeed, Patrick Ashmore had provided just such a review for the Scottish data in Gibson & Simpson’s Festschrift for Aubrey Burl in 1998 (Ashmore 1998) – answering Garwood's plea (p.146) – but it would have been helpful at least to summarise it for this volume. One casualty of the delay in publishing is that some papers were several years old when the book was printed, and there may have been an understandable reluctance to effect substantial revisions as new information became available.

         Returning to the subject of vessel function, it is a shame that it was not possible, in the end, to cover the very exciting results of the organic residue analysis of the Upper Ninepence assemblage (Dudd & Evershed 1999) – work which subsequently went on to identify a clear associative contrast between Grooved Ware and pig consumption on the one hand, and Peterborough Ware and cattle consumption on the other, in certain southern British assemblages (Dudd et al. 1999). This work has continued in Bristol University with Anna Mukherjee’s current doctoral research on residues in Grooved Ware and other pottery, and the results are awaited with great interest. Furthermore, Merryn Dineley's intriguing suggestion (reported in British Archaeology 27, 1997, 'News') that some large Grooved Ware tubs may have been used for brewing ale is worthy of serious consideration, albeit hard to prove.

         More serious, perhaps, is the assumption that readers all know, and agree, what Grooved Ware actually is and how it is defined. A degree of prior knowledge – particularly of Longworth's four styles – is required of the reader, and it is a shame that his review of the concept of Grooved Ware and the history of its study that had been delivered at the seminar was not published, as this would have helped to set the scene. The question of how Grooved Ware is defined, and whether it constitutes a ‘tradition’ (however that may be defined), is not a straightforward matter, and more could have been made of this point. One of the most trenchant criticisms of Grooved Ware studies, as voiced for example in David Clarke's review of this volume for the Antiquaries Journal, has been the elasticity of its definition. It would seem that any pottery assumed to be of late third or second millennium date that did not readily fit within the categories of Peterborough Ware (or its northern and western congeners) or Beaker has been placed in the voluminous conceptual tub that is Grooved Ware. The pitfalls of this approach have recently been highlighted by Alex Gibson's compelling re-evaluation of some claimed examples of atypical regional material from the Milfield Basin as Bronze Age ceramics (Gibson 2002). With this in mind, the temptation to view the plain 'flat-rimmed' ware from some Perthshire ceremonial sites as possible Grooved Ware (Cowie & MacSween, p.54), rather than as Late Bronze Age pottery (as an increasing number of radiocarbon dates for Aberdeenshire finds has been demonstrating), needs to be treated with caution, in this reviewer's opinion (pace G. Barclay 2000).

         The validity of Longworth's four Grooved Ware 'styles' is touched on, and its shortcomings in describing material from Scotland and Ireland acknowledged (which is just as well, since one pot from Skara Brae contains elements of three of these styles: Clarke pers. comm.). However, among southern-based scholars, at least, these convenient conceptual divisions have become deeply rooted, and indeed Garwood's paper suggests that there may be some degree of stylistic succession over the estimated 1000 years of this pottery's use in southern Britain c 3000-2000 BC, with the Woodlands style generally post-dating the Clacton, and both in use concurrently with the Durrington Walls style. Not one of the papers advocates a rigorous back-to-source critique of these basic categories, however. Nor is it suggested that these style groupings might actually be straitjacketing our way of thinking about ceramic design and its meaning: pigeonholing pots into a defined style is not tantamount to explaining them. This reviewer concurs with Brindley's and Garwood's position that what we need, to understand patterns and changes in this broad ceramic tradition, is a firm chronological framework, "drawing on rigorous analyses of relative dating evidence to lend detail to absolute chronologies based on the critical evaluation of radiocarbon dates" (Garwood, p.162). Whether that is actually achievable, given the limitations of calibration, is debatable; but there is certainly room for improvement. The intriguing claims made by Brindley, in trying to establish this kind of scheme, deserve rigorous testing based on firmer chronological foundations.

         A further area of weakness in the volume concerns the 'Why' aspects of Grooved Ware studies. There is a disappointing paucity of debate on: i) how, where, when and why Grooved Ware emerged, and ii) how and why strikingly similar pots came to be made in widely-separated parts of Britain and Ireland – and whether this betokened a brief phase of long-distance contacts, or a more sustained period of idea-sharing between networked communities. To this reviewer these are the most interesting questions; and the difficulty of answering them should not be a bar to vigorous debate. The degree to which the hypothetical southward spread of Grooved Ware use from Orkney is associated with the spread of practices relating to henges and circles of timber and stone is indeed a vexed and complex question, and other entire volumes have been dedicated to such issues. While not for a minute advocating an 'ex Orkney lux' model for the emergence and spread of these ceremonial structures, this reviewer believes that there is nevertheless a compelling pattern of associations, one aspect of which was highlighted in Alex Gibson's brief paper on timber circles (and in particular in his comments on cosmology). Within Scotland, it does not seem coincidental that there is a distributional correspondence between the thin scatter of Grooved Ware down the Atlantic seaboard, and the thin scatter of timber circles and of stone circles marked by unusually tall stones (at Callanish and Machrie Moor), echoing those at Stenness. To this reviewer, a plausible way to explain this is in terms of maritime contact with communities in Orkney, and a decision to embrace practices relating to a cosmology in which the celebration of significant celestial events featured large. There are good precedents for Northern:Western Isles links, as seen in the earlier shared use of Unstan bowls. And taking the argument further, the similarity between the pot from Knowth passage tomb 6 in the Boyne Valley in Ireland and some Orcadian Grooved Ware (see Brindley's Illustrations 3.2 and 3.3) should not occasion surprise, given the other clear evidence for long-distance links between these two areas around the time when Maes Howe-type passage tombs were being built (Sheridan 1986; in press). How the adoption of this novel ceramic style in Ireland fitted in with the social and ideological transformations of that time is one of the most intriguing questions to be sorted out; and similar issues remain to be faced in explaining the spread of this ceramic tradition (and whatever practices and beliefs may have accompanied it) elsewhere. The ghastly spectre of Euan MacKie's astronomer-priest missionaries (1997) should not deter others from pursuing the cosmological aspects.

         Finally, a niggle. The distribution map accompanying the Gazetteer on p.178 is a classic demonstration of the archaeological map-maker's problem. Time is short; you can't find a map that shows both Britain and Ireland together, at a reasonable scale; what do you do? Here, it is all too obvious that Ireland has been drawn in by hand. Even worse, the dots on it do not correspond to those on George Eogan and Helen Roche's more reliable and accurate map of Irish Grooved Ware on page 110! The solution, readers, is to substitute the latter on the overall map, so that your lecture slides – should you opt to breach copyright shamelessly – will show a better picture!

         Despite these criticisms, Cleal and MacSween have succeeded in producing a genuine milestone in Grooved Ware studies, which will be used by all serious Neolithic scholars for many years to come. Even if the volume has indeed confirmed our view that "we still 'know paradoxically so much and yet understand so little'" about Grooved Ware and its users (p.7), nevertheless it poses a research agenda and a meaningful challenge, which is for us to pursue. Others are already busy on such matters, for on the Web it is indeed possible to find mention of 'Grooved Ware people'…

Dr Alison Sheridan,
Archaeology Department,
National Museums of Scotland

Review Submitted: August 2003

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The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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