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  Unstan Ware and Grooved Ware
Neolithic Bowls  - 3D Graphic by Sigurd Towrie3D reconstruction of a Grooved Ware pot.

The Neolithic period in Orkney produced two distinct styles of pottery - Unstan Ware and Grooved Ware.

One of the most intriguing, and hotly debated, questions regarding Neolithic Orkney is the relationship between the two pottery styles.

Unstan Ware takes its name from the stalled cairn of Unstan, in Stenness, where copious quantities of the distinct pottery style were found during its excavation in 1858.

Shallow, round-bottomed, and with band of decoration around the rim, Unstan Ware came to be associated with the early Neolithic structures, and stalled cairns, in Orkney, such as the Knap o' Howar.

3d Graphic by Sigurd Towrie3D reconstruction of an Unstan Ware pot.

Grooved Ware, however, with its flat bottom and intricate decoration of scored grooves, was more common in the larger, and more recent, settlements, such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse. The Grooved Ware people buried their dead in increasingly larger, and more monumental, cairns such as Maeshowe.

The distribution of the two pottery styles fits with the idea that the Neolithic was split into an early and later stage. It appears that as Unstan Ware, and the stalled cairns, of the early stage fell out of fashion, they were replaced, as society changed and new ideas were adopted in the islands.

Others contend that the different styles were due to regional differences, with one group, or "tribe", favouring Unstan Ware, the others producing Grooved Ware.

However, archaeological evidence in Orkney - Pool, in Sanday, in particular - seems to indicate that the two pottery styles are simply indicative of a change in fashion over time. At the Pool settlement, the inhabitants were using both Grooved Ware and Unstan Ware.

An emerging elite?

It has been suggested that Grooved Ware represented an emerging elite within Neolithic society - an elite that was becoming more dominant.

At Toftsness, in Sanday, for example, it would appear that the Neolithic inhabitants of the settlement did not use Grooved Ware pottery - something that led to the suggestion that this reflects a lack of "status", compared with the nearby settlement at Pool.

This idea ties in with the increasing complexity of the architecture, and the grandness of scale of cairns such as Maeshowe.

The increased labour required to build Maeshowe is not proportional to the number of bodies housed within the tomb. In other words, Maeshowe was built by a large number of people, labouring longer but for the benefit of a few.

This appears to indicate a situation where an individual, or small group of people, had the power to command and control the labour of others. Whether these were tribal chiefs or some other form of social or religious elite remains unknown.

What can be seen, however, that where once the smaller communal tombs housed the ancestors of the tribe, by the time of Maeshowe, and similar cairns, the structure had begun to represent a structure reserved for a privileged elite.