The travelling potters

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2018

Mankind has known travel and relocating for work for thousands of years, as the tales of women from the Baltic selling clay pottery in the Nordic countries tell. Ines Nastali reports.

Around 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, women moved from Finland to Sweden and Estonia to sell the products they had learnt to make in their home country – clay pottery. 

‘We mapped the arrival routes of pottery and people representing the Corded Ware Culture (c. 2900-2300 BCE) into the Nordic countries by identifying the areas where the pottery was made,’ the researchers from the University of Helsinki, Finland, said. The Corded Ware Culture refers to the design of the pottery, cord was used to imprint patterns on it. 

The pottery was easy to identify because of these decorations. In addition, for the first time, crushed ceramics were used together with the clay, which is typical for the time and distinguishes the products from the earlier Stone Age pottery, the researchers state in a press release. ‘It is likely that the first Corded Ware Culture artisans to arrive at the Fenno-Baltic and Swedish coasts were women who had learned their craft at their place of birth.’

They would have begun to use the clay available at their new home, but they mixed it with crushed pieces of pottery they had brought with them. ‘Perhaps this was a way to preserve the older pottery that had been made in their homelands, to maintain a connection to their families and the members of former communities in their everyday lives,’ the researchers theorise.

Manufacturing hubs

From their investigations using geochemical analysis, X-ray emissions and electron microscopy of the clay and pottery, the team was able to pin down manufacturing locations. ‘Finland, Estonia, and Sweden had at least five different manufacturing areas for Corded Ware pottery that engaged in active trade across the Baltic Sea,’ the researchers note. 

‘Häme in Southern Finland had a manufacturing hub of Corded Ware pottery which can be described as quasi-industrial in Neolithic terms.’

Origin located

The work of the team has revealed that the ware didn’t arrive in Sweden the way archaeologists previously assumed – from the south. Instead, people made their way over from the east. ‘It seems clear that eastern influences were particularly fashionable during the Neolithic period, and both pottery and people belonging to this culture arrived first in Eastern Sweden from Finland and Estonia,’ the scientists state.

Female travellers

It is not the first time that researchers speak of women in charge of pottery. Previous research has revealed that they moved throughout Europe during the early Bronze Age, giving some insight into the beginning of the Corded Ware Culture.

Yamnaya men from the Pontic-Caspian steppe came to northern Europe, especially Germany, after an early form of plague killed indigenous people around 3000BC, and married Neolithic women there. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, estimate that the women started to use the cord in pottery to copy the woven, leather, and wooden containers their husbands used back home. 

‘Some confirmation of such material transformations is found in a uniquely preserved find of the typical flat bowl with short feet made of wood, well suited for turning milk into yogurt or similar dairy products overnight. Its pottery version became a shared type throughout the Corded Ware Culture,’ it is stated in a previous study Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe, published in 2017.

Read Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe in the journal

Read Tracing grog and pots to reveal Neolithic Corded Ware Culture contacts in the Baltic Sea region in the Journal of Archaeological