Fingerprint from 5,000 years ago found in Orkney

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Fingerprint on piece of potteryImage source, Jan Blatchford
Image caption,
The print was found at Ness of Brodgar

A fingerprint left on a clay vessel made by a potter 5,000 years ago has been found in Orkney.

The print was discovered on a surviving fragment of the object at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site.

Archaeologists have been excavating at the complex of ancient buildings in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site since 2006.

Imaging technology was used to reveal the fingerprint left after the potter pressed a finger into wet clay.

Ness of Brodgar is the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Archaeology Institute's flagship excavation site.

The potter's fingerprint was noted by ceramics specialist Roy Towers, who was examining a sherd - a fragment - of pottery from a huge assemblage of clay pieces recovered from the site - the largest collection of late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery in the UK.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) was used to confirm the suspected print.

Image source, Jan Blatchford
Image caption,
The print was left by a potter pressing a finger into wet clay

The process involves multiple photographs being taken of a subject, each with a different controlled light source.

These are combined using computer software to create a highly detailed model of the object that can be lit from all angles and closely examined on screen.

The resulting images often reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

'Poignant connection'

In this case, RTI work by Jan Blatchford confirmed and recorded the only fingerprint encountered at the Ness of Brodgar.

UHI said ancient fingerprints were not uncommon and research had been carried out into them for a number of years.

Archaeologists hope analysis of the Ness of Brodgar fingerprint will reveal the gender and age of the potter.

Excavation director Nick Card said: "Working on such a high-status site as the Ness of Brodgar, with its beautiful buildings and stunning range of artefacts, it can be all too easy to forget about the people behind this incredible complex.

"But this discovery really does bring these people back into focus.

"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."