Dig Diary 36: Decoration and the Must Farm Settlement: Part One
June 27, 2016
The Completeness of the Must Farm Assemblage
Archaeology is predominantly concerned with understanding the human past through the excavation and analysis of material. However, it is a somewhat strange discipline in that archaeologists often have to try and understand this past through an absence of evidence. On the majority of sites, a huge proportion of the material that would have been there will have disappeared. These can include inorganic objects but most of the missing evidence is thought to have been organic in nature, including textiles, leather, fur, hide and wooden artefacts among many others.
At Must Farm the overall assemblage is astonishingly complete with many organic objects surviving owing to favourable preservation conditions. These have resulted from a combination of waterlogging and charring: a consequence of the fire that ended the life of the settlement. As such, we can be fairly confident that the material we are recovering and examining represents a very high proportion of what would have been present at the site. This definitely seems to be true as we are discovering textiles, a plethora of wooden artefacts and even interior fittings and fixtures; all of which are extremely uncommon finds from the Late Bronze Age.
Preservation at Must Farm is astonishing with very delicate evidence surviving, such as the contents of this large storage vessel.
Even though we are finding a wider range of object types and in greater quantities than expected, we are still likely missing some materials. However, despite not having a truly complete assemblage the Must Farm settlement represents one of the most complete insights into life during the Late Bronze Age in Britain. Such an unprecedented glimpse into the material from this settlement is raising some particularly interesting and unexpected questions: one of which concerns the decoration of artefacts. The most striking issue relating to decoration at the Must Farm settlement is its absence; but is this necessarily surprising?
An Absence of Decoration at Must Farm?
With such a large assemblage of material encompassing everything from wooden and ceramic vessels to textiles it is especially surprising that very few of these artefacts demonstrate any traces of decoration. Decorative objects are well known throughout prehistory, especially in the Early Iron Age, the period which follows the end of the Must Farm settlement. What evidence do we have for decoration and do certain objects show more embellishment than others?
One of our biggest collections of artefacts are the pots, which are found across the settlement in every one of the five houses we have excavated. These range from storage vessels to more delicate drinking vessels and bowls and seem to encompass a number of different uses, from the functional to the fine. However, few of the vessels display any evidence of decoration, indeed decorated sherds and pots are in the minority and form a very small proportion of the complete assemblage.
A rare example of decoration on one of the coarseware jar. This is a style of fingertip marking around the shoulder of the vessel.
When pots do display evidence of decoration it is usually simple, straightforward and relatively understated. One vessel has a series of closely-spaced, thin impressions around its rim that appear to have been incised by the potter’s fingernails. There are also occasional examples of fingertip indentations that were used to create a “pie-crust” style edge either around the rim or shoulder of the vessels. Where these decorations do occur, they are always on the coarser storage pots. However, it is very rare within the assemblage for this decoration to occur. The vast majority of pots have no clear decorative element to them.
A typical fineware bowl in-situ with no clearly visible decoration.
The lack of embellishment is not too surprising for the coarseware storage vessels that were most likely predominantly functional in nature. Yet, the fineware bowls are clearly carefully made with a great deal of skill and care. Interestingly it appears these bowls were not entirely plain and there is evidence that they would have been burnished. Burnishing involves the polishing and buffing of the vessel to produce a distinct, “shiny” finish and in these pots it would have produced a dark, black colour. The dark, burnished finish on these pots is almost metallic nature which has drawn comparisons with metal containers from across Europe. It is possible that finishing the ceramic vessels with burnish was done to make the pots have a similar appearance to metal containers.
The burnished finish is not usually visible on the majority of our fineware vessels, resulting from the conditions of deposition. When the stilted buildings collapsed and the contents were deposited in the river below, the material had the benefit of being waterlogged which was ideal for preserving organics. Another consequence was that the burnish of these fineware ceramics was very gradually removed by the water action of the slow-moving river. As a result, it is rare to see evidence of the burnish as it only tends to survive on small areas of the vessels.
A series of sherds from a fineware bowl. If you look closely at the image you can just make out darker areas, reflecting the small remnants of burnishing that were not eroded by water action.
It seems that most of the fineware bowls, and some drinking cups, would have been burnished to create a shiny, black finish to their exteriors though it is difficult to see today. Infrequently, some of these vessels may have had a little incised decoration to them or a slightly embellished rim. Aside from these elements it seems that there was no other decoration to the pottery, making it relatively simple and restrained.
There is a clear style visible across the ceramic assemblage that is remarkably consistent. Previously, we have described how we believe the pots were all created by a single potter owing to their similarities in appearance and the technique used to create them. It is evident that the general lack of decoration on the vessels, aside from burnishing, was a conscious choice. The relative simplicity in their designs and a modest, black finish was enough: nothing fancier seems to have been required.
In the next entry we will discuss the decoration (or lack of) on various other artefact types, including wooden objects, textiles alongside a brief discussion about the presence of beads at the settlement. We will also talk a little about evidence of Late Bronze Age decoration in general and how the Must Farm material fits into our understanding of this period.