Pottery is one of the most commonly recovered artefacts from archaeological sites. Despite more than a century of relative dating based on typology and seriation1, accurate dating of pottery using the radiocarbon dating method has proven extremely challenging owing to the limited survival of organic temper and unreliability of visible residues2,3,4. Here we report a method to directly date archaeological pottery based on accelerator mass spectrometry analysis of 14C in absorbed food residues using palmitic (C16:0) and stearic (C18:0) fatty acids purified by preparative gas chromatography5,6,7,8. We present accurate compound-specific radiocarbon determinations of lipids extracted from pottery vessels, which were rigorously evaluated by comparison with dendrochronological dates9,10 and inclusion in site and regional chronologies that contained previously determined radiocarbon dates on other materials11,12,13,14,15. Notably, the compound-specific dates from each of the C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids in pottery vessels provide an internal quality control of the results6 and are entirely compatible with dates for other commonly dated materials. Accurate radiocarbon dating of pottery vessels can reveal: (1) the period of use of pottery; (2) the antiquity of organic residues, including when specific foodstuffs were exploited; (3) the chronology of sites in the absence of traditionally datable materials; and (4) direct verification of pottery typochronologies. Here we used the method to date the exploitation of dairy and carcass products in Neolithic vessels from Britain, Anatolia, central and western Europe, and Saharan Africa.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The codes used in OxCal for statistical modelling are provided in the Supplementary Information.
Orton, C. & Hughes, M. Pottery in Archaeology 2nd edn (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Evin, J., Gabasio, M. & Lefevre, J. C. Preparation techniques for radiocarbon dating of potsherds. Radiocarbon 31, 276–283 (1989).
Hedges, R. M., Tiemei, C. & Housley, R. A. Results and methods in the radiocarbon dating of pottery. Radiocarbon 34, 906–915 (1992).
Gabasio, M., Evin, J., Arnal, G. B. & Andrieux, P. Origins of carbon in potsherds. Radiocarbon 28, 711–718 (1986).
Casanova, E., Knowles, T. D. J., Williams, C., Crump, M. P. & Evershed, R. P. Use of a 700 MHz NMR microcryoprobe for the identification and quantification of exogenous carbon in compounds purified by preparative capillary gas chromatography for radiocarbon determinations. Anal. Chem. 89, 7090–7098 (2017).
Casanova, E., Knowles, T. D. J., Williams, C., Crump, M. P. & Evershed, R. P. Practical considerations in high-precision compound-specific radiocarbon analyses: eliminating the effects of solvent and sample cross-contamination on accuracy and precision. Anal. Chem. 90, 11025–11032 (2018).
Evershed, R. P. et al. Chemistry of archaeological animal fats. Acc. Chem. Res. 35, 660–668 (2002).
Roffet-Salque, M. et al. From the inside out: upscaling organic residue analyses of archaeological ceramics. J. Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 16, 627–640 (2017).
Coles, J. M. & Orme, B. J. Ten excavations along the Sweet Track (3200 bc). Somerset Lev. Pap. 10, 5–45 (1984).
Hillam, J. et al. Dendrochronology of the English Neolithic. Antiquity 64, 210–220 (1990).
Marciniak, A. et al. Fragmenting times: interpreting a Bayesian chronology for the late Neolithic occupation of Çatalhöyük East, Turkey. Antiquity 89, 154–176 (2015).
Denaire, A. et al. The cultural project: formal chronological modelling of the early and middle Neolithic sequence in Lower Alsace. J. Archaeol. Method Theory 24, 1072–1149 (2017).
Jakucs, J. et al. Between the Vinča and Linearbandkeramik worlds: the diversity of practices and identities in the 54th–53rd centuries cal bc in Southwest Hungary and beyond. J. World Prehist. 29, 267–336 (2016).
Biagetti, S. & di Lernia, S. Holocene deposits of Saharan rock shelters: the case of Takarkori and other sites from the Tadrart Acacus Mountains (southwest Libya). Afr. Archaeol. Rev. 30, 305–338 (2013).
Whittle, A. W. R., Healy, F. M. A. & Bayliss, A. Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland (Oxbow Books, 2011).
Wheeler, R. E. M. Archaeology from the Earth (Penguin, 1956).
Taylor, R. E. Radiocarbon Dating, An Archaeological Perspective (Academic, 1987).
Bronk Ramsey, C. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337–360 (2009).
Barnett, W. & Hoopes, J. W. The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).
Kuzmin, Y. The origins of pottery in East Asia: updated analysis (the 2015 state-of-the-art). Doc. Praehist. 42, 1–11 (2015).
Stott, A. W. et al. Radiocarbon dating of single compounds isolated from pottery cooking vessel residues. Radiocarbon 43, 191–197 (2001).
Evershed, R. P. Biomolecular archaeology and lipids. World Archaeol. 25, 74–93 (1993).
Berstan, R. et al. Direct dating of pottery from its organic residues: new precision using compound-specific carbon isotopes. Antiquity 82, 702–713 (2008).
Eglinton, T. I., Aluwihare, L. I., Bauer, J. E., Druffel, E. R. M. & McNichol, A. P. Gas chromatographic isolation of individual compounds from complex matrices for radiocarbon dating. Anal. Chem. 68, 904–912 (1996).
Coles, B. J. & Coles, J. M. Sweet Track to Glastonbury: The Somerset Levels in Prehistory 163–169 (Oxbow, 1986).
Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal bp. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).
Roffet-Salque, M. et al. Evidence for the impact of the 8.2-kyBP climate event on Near Eastern early farmers. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8705–8709 (2018).
Dunne, J. et al. First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium bc. Nature 486, 390–394 (2012).
Cherkinsky, A. & di Lernia, S. Bayesian approach to 14C dates for estimation of long-term archaeological sequences in arid environments: the Holocene site of Takarkori Rockshelter, Southwest Libya. Radiocarbon 55, 771–782 (2013).
Wacker, L. Christl, M. & Synal, H.-A. BATS: a new tool for AMS data reduction. Nucl. Instrum. Methods Phys. Res. B 268, 976–979 (2010).
Stuiver, M. & Polach, H. A. Discussion reporting of 14C data. Radiocarbon 19, 355–363 (1977).
Ward, G. K. & Wilson, S. R. Procedures for comparing and combining radiocarbon age determinations: a critique. Archaeometry 20, 19–31 (1978).
Bronk Ramsey, C. Radiocarbon calibration and analysis of stratigraphy: the OxCal program. Radiocarbon 37, 425–430 (1995).
Stuiver, M. & Reimer, P. J. Extended 14C data base and revised CALIB 3.0 14C age calibration program. Radiocarbon 35, 215–230 (1993).
We thank the European Research Council for funding an advanced grant (NeoMilk, FP7-IDEAS-ERC/324202) and a proof-of-concept grant (LipDat, H2020 ERC-2018-PoC/812917) to R.P.E., financing a PhD to E. Casanova and postdoctoral contract to M.R.-S. and J.S., and a postdoctoral contract to E. Casanova; the BRAMS facility for the radiocarbon measurements, establishment of which was jointly funded by the NERC, BBSRC and University of Bristol; P. Monaghan for his help with the radiocarbon sample preparation; the Polish National Science Centre (decision DEC-2012/06/M/H3/00286) for financing the work in the upper levels at Çatalhöyük; the Department of Antiquities in Tripoli, Libya for permits and Sapienza University of Rome and Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for funding the fieldwork in Libya; MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) for excavating and providing potsherds from Principal Place (PPL11), London EC2/E1; and B. Schnitzler from the Palais Rohan for accessing the material from Rosheim, A. Mulot from the Achéologie Alsace (Centre of Conservation and Study) for accessing the material from Ensisheim, R. W. Schmitz from the LVR-Landes Museum Bonn for accessing the material from Königshoven 14 and R. Brunning from the South West Heritage Trust for sharing excavation photographs of the Sweet Track.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature thanks Graeme Barker and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Fig. 1 Schematic showing the stratigraphic information of the Neolithic occupation of the TP area at Çatalhöyük (Turkey).
This information was included in the chronological model defined in Extended Data Fig. 2. Contexts containing potsherds dated in this study are highlighted in green.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Probability distributions of dates from Neolithic deposits in the TP area at Çatalhöyük, Turkey.
Data include the results on absorbed fatty acids in pottery sherds listed in Extended Data Table 1. Each distribution represents the relative probability that an event occurs at a particular time. For each date, two distributions are plotted: one in outline, which is the result of a simple radiocarbon calibration, and a solid one, based on the chronological model used. The distributions in green correspond to the potsherds, distributions in black show the pre-existing chronology. Distributions other than those relating to particular samples correspond to aspects of the model. For example, the distribution ‘end East Mound occupation’ is the estimated date at which the Neolithic occupation of the East Mound ended at Çatalhöyük. Measurements followed by a question mark and shown in outline have been excluded from the model for reasons described in table 1 of a previous study11 and are simple calibrated dates34. The large square brackets down the left side, along with the OxCal keywords, define the overall model exactly.
Key parameters for the start of the use of LBK ceramics (blue distribution)—derived from the models defined in Extended Data Fig. 3, figure 8 of a previous study12, and figures 18, 19 (model 1), 20, 21 (model 2) and 22, 23 (model 3) of a previous publication13—were compared with the start of LBK lipids presented in Extended Data Fig. 3 (red distributions), and subsequently deliberately biased by 1σ, 2σ, 3σ, 4σ and 8σ to younger (orange distributions) and older (pink distributions) values. Some distributions may have been truncated.
a, b, The Wadi Takarkori area (dashed rectangle). c, Schematic plan of the excavated areas. All sampled sherds come from the main sector.
Extended Data Fig. 6 Site stratigraphy, photographs of potsherds and radiocarbon dates of Middle Pastoral pottery vessels from Takarkori (Libya) modelled using Bayesian statistics.
a, Stratigraphic context of sampled potsherds from Takarkori east–west profile of the southern wall of the Takarkori north–south (Extended Data Fig. 5). (a) aeolian sand; (b) sand rich in organic matter; (c) lenses of undecomposed plant remains; (d) ash; (e) charcoal; (f) slurry deposit; (g) eroded sand from the wall; (h) bedrock. b, Photographs of the five potsherds analysed showing typical Middle Pastoral decorative patterns. c, Example of temporally and spatially wide deposit of organic sands (detail of layer 25, Takarkori main sector). d, Statistical model of the Middle Pastoral period showing the comparison of pot lipid dates (in green) with previous radiocarbon measurements. Data are shown as described for Extended Data Fig. 2.
Extended Data Fig. 7 Sensitivity analyses of radiocarbon dates on vessels from Takarkori rock shelter, Libya.
Probability distributions for the beginning and end Middle Pastoral period ceramics from Takarkori rock shelter, Libya (no pot lipid dates) compared with those of the model shown in the Extended Data Fig. 6d and models including fatty acid dates that were deliberately biased by 1σ, 2σ, 4σ, 8σ, 20σ and 40σ. Data are shown as described for Extended Data Fig. 4.
Extended Data Fig. 8 Probability distributions of dates associated with the use of early Neolithic Plain Bowl pottery in southern Britain.
Prior distributions have been taken from the models described in the text and in the Supplementary Information. Data are shown as described for Extended Data Fig. 2.
Extended Data Fig. 9 Sensitivity analyses of radiocarbon dates on vessels from Principal Place, London.
Probability distributions of the start and end of early Neolithic Plain Bowl pottery in southern Britain compared with those of the model shown in Extended Data Fig. 8 and models including fatty acid dates that were deliberately biased by 2σ, 4σ, 8σ and 16σ. Data are shown as described for Extended Data Fig. 4.
This file contains the details on the methods employed (SI 1) as well as the discussion of the results for every case study presented in the paper (SI 2-7) and conclusions of the analyses (SI 8).
Sorted Table. This file contains the matrix of the correspondence analysis based on decorative motifs of main and secondary motifs during the Middle Neolithic in Alsace (SI 4).
Sweet Track OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels associated with the Sweet Track, Somerset levels, UK (SI 2).
TP OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels from the TP area at Çatalhöyük East, Turkey (SI 3).
Alsace Middle Neolithic OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels from the Alsatian Middle Neolithic, France (SI 4).
LBK lipids OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels from the LBK sites in Central Europe (SI 5).
Takarkori Middle Pastoral OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels from the Middle Pastoral period at Takarkori, Libya (SI 6).
Plain Bowl OxCal Model (OXCAL file). This file is the OxCal code used for evaluation of the accurate dating of pottery vessels from Principal Place, London, UK (SI 7).
About this article
Cite this article
Casanova, E., Knowles, T.D.J., Bayliss, A. et al. Accurate compound-specific 14C dating of archaeological pottery vessels. Nature 580, 506–510 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2178-z
African Archaeological Review (2021)
African Archaeological Review (2021)
Modelling Prehistoric Topography and Vegetation in the Lower Thames Valley, UK: Palaeoenvironmental Context for Wetland Archaeology and Evidence for Neolithic Landnám from North Woolwich
Environmental Archaeology (2021)
Animal exploitation and pottery use during the early LBK phases of the Neolithic site of Bylany (Czech Republic) tracked through lipid residue analysis
Quaternary International (2021)
Searching for the fundamentals of rehydroxylation dating of archaeological ceramics via NMR and IR microscopy
Journal of the American Ceramic Society (2021)