Pygmy Cup

Excavated at Hutton Buscel, on the outskirts of Scarborough, this tiny pot is an extremely rare example of a Bronze Age miniature food vessel known as a pygmy cup.

The pot was kindly examined by Debbie Hallam, a researcher from Bradford University who is exploring the histories of pygmy cups from the north of England as an Master of Philosophy topic.

During her investgations, Debbie discovers that the pot dates from the Early Bronze Age (2200-1500 BC), and is from a tradition of ceramics also commonly known as incense cups or accessory vessels. 

“The Hutton Buscel miniature food vessel pygmy cup is a rare example; only six others are known and these have been found in East Yorkshire and Northumberland. The type appears to have a Northern bias in distribution.

“Pygmy cups are small cup-shaped clay pots that are often highly decorated but equally can be plain and undecorated, with no two being absolutely identical. Some have holes or perforations intentionally added but the reason for this is unclear.”

Although archaeologists don’t know exactly what they were used for, pygmy cups are almost always found with a cremation deposit in a burial context such as a round barrow, occasionally accompanying other larger contemporary ceramics such as food vessels or collared urns. 

A large proportion of the cups are heat damaged, blackened and spalled due to being placed directly into the funeral pyre with the body and when recovered during excavation some have been found to contain small amounts of cremated bone or to be placed inside a larger pot with the cremation, often inverted. 

“These small pots are widely distributed across England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales but are not common and the total number found in the North of Britain is around 224. Analysis of skeletal material indicates that deposition of cups could be with male or female, young or old, there was no clear preference,” says Debbie.

“The fabric, form and decoration of pygmy cups is so diverse that it is difficult to determine the exact influences for the tradition: some appear to display relict beaker decoration, others are decorated using techniques known to be used in the Neolithic period, and some of the plain, heavy-based cups resemble small crucibles. 

“Another type, which is much rarer, is scaled-down versions of larger, more common pots and this includes the Hutton Buscel pygmy cup, which is a small food vessel type. Food vessels were in circulation at the same time as beaker pottery but ultimately outlasted them by around two hundred years.”