Make a prehistoric pot

Pieces of prehistoric pottery have been found by fieldwalkers, metal detectorists and in people’s gardens all over Norfolk. Pottery in the prehistoric period varied greatly, but almost all of it was handmade using local clays. It wasn’t until the very end of the Iron Age that pottery made with a potter’s wheel was introduced. Most prehistoric pottery was fired in or under an open fire rather than in a specially made kiln. This means that sites where prehistoric pottery was made are very difficult to identify. 

Drawing of pieces of Neolithic pottery found at Chedgrave.

Pieces of Neolithic pottery found at Chedgrave. (© NCC)

We do not know if there were any large production centres for pottery in Norfolk in the prehistoric period. It seems more likely that in most small settlements people would make their own pots from local clays. To stop the pots exploding when they fired them ‘temper’ was added. Different types of temper were used. These include small pieces of flint, grass, sand, broken pieces of pot or mixtures of these materials. 

Illustration of beaker showing incised and comb decoration.

A fragment of a Beaker pottery vessel with incised decoration found in Barwick. (© NCC)

During prehistory pottery was made by joining together rings of clay that were then smoothed out by hand.  Some smaller prehistoric pots may also have been made by pinching the clay into shape between the thumb and forefinger.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the pottery was coarse and undecorated. Decorations were added to prehistoric pots using a variety of different techniques.  Stamps, sticks, fingernails, fingertips and bird and animal bones were used to impress designs. String and rope were used to draw lines around pots. Knives could be also be used. Extra pieces of clay could be added to create rims and more complex designs.

In addition to the types of clays and tempers and decoration used there is also a lot of variation in the size and shape of prehistoric pots.

Pottery was first made in Norfolk in the Neolithic period.  Pieces of this early pot were found in many of the Neolithic pits excavated at Broome Heath (NHER 36289). Neolithic pot has also been found at Spong Hill (NHER 1012) and Kilverstone (NHER 34489). At first the pottery was simple and undecorated but decoration is later introduced and becomes increasingly elaborate. Later decorated pot has been found at sites such as Hockwold (NHER 5311).

Make your own prehistoric pot

Prehistoric pots made during Archaeology Week 2006 at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

Prehistoric style pots made during Archaeology Week 2006 at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. (© NCC)

You will need:

Pencil and paper

Self-hardening clay

Water and a small piece of sponge

Tools and cutters

Piece of stiff card 


Detail of the inside of a prehistoric pot made during Archaeology Week 2006 at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

Detail of the inside of a prehistoric style pot made during Archaeology Week 2006 at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

 (© NCC)

1. Think about your pot and what it will look like. Look at the photographs of prehistoric pots to give you ideas. Draw your design on paper.

2. Make the base of the pot by rolling out or flattening a piece of clay to the right thickness and cutting it into a circle. Put this on the piece of card.

3. To make the sides of the pot, split a lump of clay into smaller pieces and roll them out into worm shapes. Make lots of them.

4. Take a worm shape and wrap it around on top of the clay circle base.

5. Smooth the sides of the pot so that you can’t see any of the joins between the worm and the base.

6. Add more worms on top of each other, going round and round to make the sides of the pot. Smooth each worm as you add it to the pot.

7. Decorate your pot with your fingertips, fingernails, pencils, forks or by adding more worms to the outside of the pot.

8. Leave the pot in a warm place to dry.

You don't need to have any special tools to work with clay, here are some ideas of things you could use: a blunt knife for cutting or incising decorations, pastry cutters, a comb, fork or bottle top to make patterns. If you have to leave your pot before it is finished put it in a cool place wrapped in a plastic carrier bag.

M. Dennis (NLA), 11 September 2006.

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