Ceramic production techniques and decorative motifs in the Early Neolithic of the Maltese Islands

By: Isabelle Vella Gregory

The Early Neolithic of the Maltese Islands is mostly known for its ceramics, with more substantial remains in the Skorba phase. However, the ceramics provide insight into communities. This paper traces the making of pots in the Early Neolithic, focusing on how a study of technology is also a study of people and their practices. In particular, it shows how an examination of tools used to decorate pottery reveals social and technological choices by local inhabitants.

Keywords: pottery; Neolithic; Għar Dalam phase; Skorba phase; decoration; technology


The study of Maltese pottery is slowly moving away from a rigid focus on typology and exploring themes related to manufacture, source material and attributes. The next step is to set an agenda to explore pottery within the framework of a community of practice, following the chaîne opératoire from beginning to end. Traditionally, the concept of a chaîne opératoire involves tracing the chain of operations leading to an object. It was first applied to stone tool technology and has since found much wider application (Dobres 1999). It traces the object from acquiring the source material to its work and use and final deposition. Combined with the concept of object biography (Appadurai 1986) and community of practice (a group of people who share a craft or profession, Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998), this is a very useful approach to understanding objects within their social domain. At its heart, this approach views technology as a social phenomenon. Much like the process of making and using a pot, it combines multiple avenues of inquiry. This paper examines the Early Neolithic phases of Għar Dalam and Skorba within this framework, providing an initial case study for this approach by looking at technological choices as expressed via tools used for décor and their implications.

Pottery: A social technology

The transformation of clay with fire, water and air into pottery, with useful longevity in the archaeological record, has resulted into one of the most ubiquitous objects in archaeological sites. This has resulted in many other transformations, for example different ways of preparing, eating and storing food, the making of ‘non-utilitarian’ objects, the creation of new building materials etc. In short, pottery is part of deeper social transformations. The ubiquity of pottery in the prehistoric Mediterranean (and elsewhere) has another consequence. Pottery has become one of the key classificatory tools in archaeology. It has been used to provide chronologies and define social groups and their movements but in the process far less attention has been paid to the wider socio-technological implications.

Figure 1: Biography of pot making as a social technology (I. Vella Gregory).

A ceramic vessel is a very concrete, material object but large parts of its biography leave ephemeral traces (Fig. 1). It starts with the acquisition of clay. Transforming clay requires water, temper (sometimes) and fire. Each step requires a set of tools. Attribute analyses have identified some of the types of tools used for creating decoration (Vella Gregory 2017). In turn, these tools have their own object biographies. Tools for decorating pottery can be objects like bone (which in itself involves the biography of an animal) and natural objects like wood, modified for several purposes. Studying the sequence of steps in making a pot provides a framework for understanding variability and conformity. More importantly, these steps reflect “how society structures technological practices in order that socially specific material culture is produced and reproduced” (Kohring 2011, 148). Pots are made within a technical tradition which in turn is taught and mediated by social relationships.

Studies of Maltese prehistoric pottery have had a complicated relationship with the concept of technology. Early work by Despott (1917; 1923) noted things like the texture of clay, the colour of the core, the absence or presence of slip or ‘design’, but there was no systematic approach to the corpus beyond a descriptive one. Margaret Murray (1923) noted that Maltese pottery is difficult to study due to its fragmentary state, although her research focused on areas of heavy agricultural use. Themistocles Zammit divided pottery into Neolithic and Bronze age, and Ashby et al. (1913) adopted a more systematic approach. But the most lasting influence on Maltese pottery remains the work of J.D. Evans (1953; 1959) and David Trump. Evans focused on producing a sequence based on shape, style, decoration and handles. Excavations by Trump (1961b; 1966) substantially revised the typology and chronological sequence, yielding a new phase (the Skorba phase, subdivided into two phases) and providing much needed sequential clarity. This typology remains largely unchallenged even in more recent excavations (Malone et al. 2009).

Much of this is related to how archaeologists view technology in Maltese archaeology. More broadly, archaeology has engaged with technology in various ways. One useful way of looking at the Maltese Neolithic is through the lens of technology, the role of which has been extensively debated in archaeology (Ingold 1990; Gell 1992; Dobres 2000), where technology is viewed as a multi-faceted activity that goes beyond the simple making of things. The technological debate in Maltese prehistory tends to rely on traditional notions of modes of subsistence and functional production, with less attention paid to the social embeddedness of technology and the web of relations and meanings relating to the actions of people on materials (Lemonnier 2002). A discussion of the social embeddedness of technology goes beyond the traditional studies of ceramics and takes as a starting point the notion that people make all sorts of things at many different scales, each of which has a place (or many) in the social arena. Things, whether pottery vessels, figurines or complex buildings, can profoundly influence social relations. They are not merely objects, but they have a biography which is related to that of people and community.

Within this framework, a study of pots is also a study of people (Ingold 1990), knowledge (Barth 2002) and practice (Bourdieu 1977). The study of people’s actions on materials and their transformation, referred to here as techniques, is also a study of wider social phenomena. Therefore, technology is not simply about the making of things but also about interactions between people and the physical world (Coupaye 2009). Within a community of practice, potters share a technological tradition within their social networks. These can be at village level, at a broader social level and even beyond the shores of a society. The discussion below explores technological choices within a contextual framework, rather than seeing pots as separate to the community. While a vessel is made by one (or more) persons, this occurs within a social arena and as such the end result reflects both the potter and society’s use of the vessel. The Għar Dalam and Skorba phases are mostly known via their ceramics (and settlement remains in Skorba) and exploring vessels is a means of exploring underlying systems of knowledge and social relations.

Għar Dalam and Skorba pottery

The Għar Dalam (5000-4500 BC) and Grey and Red Skorba phases (4500-4400, 4400-4100 BC) are most visible through ceramics, made using locally available materials (Vella Gregory 2017). The Għar Dalam remains from Skorba point to a farming community but hardly anything is known about burial ritual and other aspects of life and cosmology. The pottery is traditionally descried as being of the Impressed Ware variety, which in reality is a broad term that is applicable to many decorative schemes across the Mediterranean. Traditionally parallels have been drawn with pottery from Stentinello in nearby southeast Sicily. Contact between the Maltese archipelago and Sicily is well-established but the nature of this contact needs to be re-evaluated. Impressed Ware is a problematic way of describing an assemblage, particularly since the term refers to a decorative technique seen in wide-ranging spatial and temporal contexts. These can be diverse even over a relatively short geographical distance (see for example Natali & Forgia 2018). On its own this is not an indicator of direct evolution and the passive reception of social practices.

Indeed, the so-called Impressed pottery appears in very different contexts in Sicily and Malta. Sicily has ditched settlements on the eastern coastal plain and elsewhere there is a variation in different settlement patterns related to different landscapes. Caves were inhabited seasonally and where present, ditched settlements are a community project tied to constructions of identity and demarcating space. Sometimes, ditches in Sicily have small deposits of human bones. Burials are also varied, generally cyst and pit graves with a few grave goods (Leighton 1999). By contrast, contemporary settlement in Malta is in caves. There are no ditched villages in Malta and when villages appear in 4500 BC they take a different form. Burial data remains unknown for this period and cosmological beliefs are fleetingly seen in other forms of ritual. Therefore, while the technique may have had Sicilian origins, it is reworked in a different context and acquires different meanings over time. More pertinently, a re-examination of the assemblage described as Impressed Ware shows that vessels were decorated using a variety of tools and motor actions.

The Għar Dalam ceramic repertoire is best understood through an analysis of the motifs in terms of constituent components because what really distinguishes the various Impressed Wares are the tools that made them and the techniques of production. The assemblage is produced using a variety of techniques, producing different motifs that can be combined in different ways. Comb-stamping, a versatile technique that involves stamping clay when semi-wet, is widely used and produces different designs. For example, some sherds comprise incised or stamped chevrons in a joined-up zig-zag pattern, or a herringbone-like patterns and with the spaces between the chevrons sometimes infilled with comb-stamped lines, effectively combining different tools and motor actions (Fig. 2). There is also an Għar Dalam phase sherd from Mġarr (Ta’ Ħaġrat) which has two parallel lines made by an evenly serrated comb with two teeth using the APS technique (Alternately Pivoting Stamp) (Fig. 3). Other Għar Dalam sherds were decorated by incising lines with a stylus rather than impressing a comb. These can be either parallel lines, combinations of parallel and angular lines, or lines forming incised squares and quadrangles, and wavy lines.

Figure 2: Sherd from Għar Dalam with banded incised chevrons on the body, comb-stamping on the rim, two incised channels just under the rim followed by another comb stamped line (Photograph: Daniel Cilia).

Għar Dalam shapes are relatively simple but the variable surface treatments make use of different techniques of production. The range of tools in use at this time is not particularly wide, consisting of stiff pointed tools (for example sticks or sharpened bone) and two pronged implements functioning as combs being common. Interestingly for an island, there is no identified use of fish spines for incising any of the lines or for stamping; fish spines would have produced more regular spaced incised lines and the stamping would have had an identifiable curvature to it. This does indicate a distinct social selective mechanism in the choice of the implements used by the potters. There is a large proportion of coarse ware and finer wares are much rarer. While settlement data for this period remain very scant, the ceramic technology indicates production at a household level, in a context where there is agreement within communities on the set of tools employed for decoration.

Figure 3: Għar Dalam sherd from Ta’ Ħaġrat decorated using the comb APS technique (Photograph: Daniel Cilia).

The Għar Dalam phase pottery is not just found at Għar Dalam cave but also from Ta’ Ħaġrat and Skorba in Mġarr, where Trump (1966, 17) lists the remnant of a deposit beneath the lowest floor in the right-hand apse of the eastern temple. No mention is made of another extant Għar Dalam deposit at the site and so this may be the original context for the sherd mentioned above. This phase is also known from Santa Verna and Skorba (Trump 1961a); at the latter, roughly a quarter are fine wares and the remainder are coarse wares. Clay is also used to produce figuration, traditionally said to appear in the subsequent Skorba phase at a time of increased social complexity. Three heads of animals from Għar Dalam that were once part of bowls point to an interest in representation. These are made using techniques similar to the production of vessels (Fig. 4). These objects display an interest in representation. They also show how techniques are utilized to create multiple forms and express a concern with creating something other than a utilitarian vessel. At this stage in the Neolithic, there is a certain amount of experimentation and creative expression that is reflected in the production of ceramics.

The subsequent Grey Skorba phase shows a shift in practice and choices. Trump (1961a, 301) observed a continuity in terms of “a complete absence of decoration, pedestal sherds, simple open rims, and a dark burnished ware distinguished by very frequent small white grits. This also occurred in certain Għar Dalam sherds, where the pedestal was also recognised.” This should be read in general terms. White grits are the only common feature, resulting from relatively homogenous clays on the islands. Pedestals are also a feature of some Grey Skorba vessels. However, such comparisons rely on very broad categories. It is hard to make a case for continuity, or its absence, based on such limited parameters. Principal Component Analysis groups of the results from analysing six trace elements by Pirone (2017) in Neolithic – Bronze Age sherds resulted in the majority of Għar Dalam and Grey and Red Skorba samples being grouped together, making it difficult to distinguish variation.

Grey Skorba pottery has powdered gypsum for tempering. The pottery is largely (but not exclusively) undecorated, the only surface treatment is a high polish and no slip. Emphasis has been placed on handles, which can be horizontal pierced lugs, imperforate lugs or dimpled at the ends to suggest perforation. These have been noted as signs of “considerable development during the phase” even though “this could be correlated with the stratigraphy only in the most general terms” (Trump 1966, 26). The Red Skorba phase is characterized by more substantial villages. The pottery is highly burnished, infrequently decorated and distinctively red in colour. Red Skorba vessels have been compared to Diana ware in Sicily, however while this comparison may hold true superficially, it does not explain the social changes from the earlier Għar Dalam phase and the subsequent Skorba phases. Indeed, such an uncritical approach views identity as not only a simple reproduction of an ill-defined Sicilian identity but also as remaining static over a period of 1,100 years.

Diana pottery in Sicily is distributed fairly broadly across that island. Although fairly homogenous in appearance, it is worth noting that the evolution to undecorated vessels is rather slow in Sicily. The first Diana pots still bear some traces of decoration from the previous phase, consisting of meanders and spirals. The second phase is a largely undecorated assemblage with much simpler forms and bright red surfaces (Tusa 1983), more akin to what is known in the Maltese Islands. Eventually, Diana ware loses its characteristic red slip and there is a much narrower shape range. By contrast, the transition from Għar Dalam to the two Skorba phases on the Maltese Islands sees a shift from rough-textured surfaces to shiny plain grey and eventually bright red surfaces.

Figure 4: Animal heads from Għar Dalam (Photograph: Daniel Cilia).

Furthermore, incision is used in some Skorba phase figurative representation and new reductive techniques are employed in the making of other objects. Ceramic production takes place at a village level. It is unclear if it is produced at a household level or if this indicates the emergence of potters. The consistency in temper, the uniformity and ubiquity of plain wares and the adoption of slip indicate the slow appearance of specialisation. At the same time, people are transforming other materials. Bones are transformed into tools or personal ornaments (for example a cow incisor, a cockle and a cowrie are perforated for use as pendants). Local flint is used to produce tools, mostly blades. Of note are a single-piece sickle blade with secondary working and gloss, and two smaller blades with sickle gloss. Chert flakes are described as more numerous than pot sherds (Trump 1966, 29). Local chert is easily available and was very much a material at hand, used to create disposable tools. There is a focus on the raw material, particularly material that is imported. Obsidian tools are relatively small in number at this stage but two cores (one from Pantelleria, weighing at 1.7kg and another from Lipari weighing at 400g) were found in Red Skorba levels. ‘Exotic’ materials are present in small numbers and also include an adze-amulet made of hard green-black stone described as non-local (Trump 1966).

Figure 5: Clay figurines from Skorba (Photograph: Daniel Cilia).

Red Skorba phase ritual is seen in a ‘shrine’. Its North Room contained large quantities of domesticated animal bones related to consumption. However, there were ground cow tarsals, approximately 3cm in height. These were produced using a reductive technique. Furthermore, both rooms contained goat skulls with fairly straightened horns, a complete cranium and the removal of the facial bones from the upper ends of the orbits. Two of these were found side by side in the North Room and other examples were found in both rooms (Trump 1966, 14). The report also notes numerous chert flakes, especially in the North room. This space was therefore used as a repository for worked objects and the making of objects and perhaps tools. Skorba was a small village in which households functioned largely as dwelling places. Larger projects required a communal space and the shrine was also a meeting place.

This flexibility in the use of spaces is possible in a small society and an effective form of social sodality. The North Room also contained a small number of figurines. The majority of figurines are made out of clay and, like the vessels, they are highly burnished. All represent the human form, specifically the female body. The placement of figurines in a ‘shrine’ utilised for structured ritual and the production of tools suggests that Skorba people placed value on the communal aspects of production and transformation, both in terms of transforming materials and the transformations of rituals. The production of figurines is closely linked to that of pottery, not just in terms of material but in terms of decorative techniques. The Skorba figurines (Fig. 4) are burnished and bright red, like the pottery. Unlike the pottery, they are not completely plain but only specific elements are represented, in particular genitalia and noses. Producing the human body in the Red Skorba phase is an additive process that employs many techniques used in the production of pottery. However, processes used to make figurines, for example incisions, are not replicated on vessels. Objects made using a variety of techniques are placed and used together in a space where different techniques intersect and create relations. Seemingly disparate objects and techniques were considered necessary to create a context (the ‘shrine’) for a specific set of practices.


The reconfiguration of ceramic technology is part of a wider series of technological changes, which in turn are linked to a different approach to daily practice. This is linked to a shift towards larger village settlement and new perceptions of the world beyond the Maltese Islands. Approaching the ceramic repertoire from a purely stylistic and typological standpoint obscures these broader changes. As Gosselain (2000) notes, pottery traditions (and this refers to choices in materials and manufacturing techniques) may incorporate elements of different origins. Furthermore, in deciding which techniques to adopt, people may choose to manipulate these techniques without jeopardizing the chaîne opératoire. Thus, while the origins of Early Neolithic pottery in Malta may derive from Sicily, use of the category Impressed Ware is unproductive. Ultimately, a ceramic repertoire presents us with a complex mix of inventions, borrowed ideas and manipulations. These can be redefined and reinterpreted to suit a particular group’s needs.

Techniques like impressing and burnishing can be easily borrowed and interpreted without necessarily entailing continuous direct influence from Sicily. This is no way excludes cultural contact. Rather, it highlights that contact was much more dynamic than previously thought and a narrative based on the passive reception of ideas and practice masks agency and the networks it operates in. Gosselain (2000) notes that from a typological point of view, tools (for example for creating impressions) allow for the identification of social networks whose interactions may be occasional or superficial. Thus, despite some form of contact, people would not necessarily see themselves as a bounded cultural unit. This is precisely why artefacts need to be considered as part of a complex and dynamic system with an equally multi-layered biography. On the Maltese Islands people reconfigure their view of materials, for example, by prizing obsidian as a core rather than as a tool. They also construct new forms of knowledge about the meaning of distance and value.

What is apparent on the Maltese Islands is that there is a clear a reconfiguration of both the ceramic and tool technologies. Tools are used to create burnished or polished glossy surfaces. Techniques of comb stamping, impression and incision are replaced by polishing and burnishing. The precise recipes for constructing pots are the subject of further research. In terms of decor and production, knowledge is passed on both within and across villages. This is seen in agreed temper recipes across communities, pointing to a shared and agreed process of acquiring materials. There is also agreement on production techniques within any one period of time. Trump’s (1961a) observation that some forms of late Għar Dalam pottery survive into the early Skorba phase is also borne out by Pirone’s study of trace elements (Pirone 2017). This strongly indicates local continuity within wider evolving social practices. More importantly, these changes in the community of practice were not imposed or imported from outside. Future application of this approach to new datasets of Neolithic pottery (Vella Gregory 2017, 2018) will elucidate how communities of practices evolved and were made manifest over the millennia.


The author is deeply grateful to Heritage Malta and the National Museum of Archaeology, particularly Sharon Sultana and Vanessa Ciantar. Daniel Cilia was generous with his images, as always. Thanks are also due to anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


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Isabelle VELLA GREGORY is an Affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.

Malta Archaeological Review 2021, issue 12, https://doi.org/10.46651/mar.2021.4
Received: 8 September 2020 | Published online: 25 January 2021