The following is an extract from my book Dress and Identity in Iron Age Britain: a study of glass beads and other objects of personal adornment published by Archaeopress (ISBN: 9781784915261). It is a guide that I put together on how to measure and describe glass beads, but particularly those from the Iron Age.
If you use the information from this blog post in something you write, please cite it as: Foulds, E.M. 2017. Dress and Identity in Iron Age Britain: a study of glass beads and other objects of personal adornment. Oxford: Archaeopress, 247-53.
Terminology & Guide to Recording Glass Beads
The quality of the descriptions of glass beads varies between archaeology reports and the typologies designed by Guido (1978a), Stead (1979), Dent (1984), and Gray (Bulleid & Gray 1966). Therefore, for comparability, consistency and clarification it became necessary to define a number of terms. The necessary terminology concerns the description of the physical appearance of the beads, namely: size, shape, colour, and decoration.
Glass beads dating to the Iron Age are often very simple in their nature compared to other time periods and cultures, but they do require a specialised and standardised vocabulary for describing them. Iron Age beads could exhibit an unlimited number of characteristics; however, their one key aspect is that they have a single central perforation that allows the object to be strung. Although similar types of objects with multiple perforations (i.e. ‘spacer beads’) existed in previous periods, such as on Bronze Age jet necklaces, there is no evidence for their use in the Iron Age. If they were used, then they were likely made from organic material that has not preserved. Beads with off-centre perforations are considered to be pendants and to date have also not been found in Iron Age contexts. Caution is also needed when classifying an object as a bead, as beads and spindle whorls can sometimes be confused (Liu 1978). Both of these objects can be very small and have a centrally located perforation and it can serve as both a bead and spindle whorl at different times. Context of deposition would be the ideal method for distinguishing between whorls and beads, but as has been shown in this research, unless the deposition was made in an inhumation, the feature gives very little indication as to how the object was used.
I struggled for a long time trying to decide on an image or compilation of images for the front cover of my book. When I say ‘struggled’ what I really mean is that I had a lot of ideas, but I was completely limited by my own artistic talent!
But, then I had an idea…
During my doctoral degree I decided to book a class on making glass beads. I like to have a sense of a material and the process used to create something. I have a lot of experience with textiles from sewing and a bit of knitting and my mother is a spinner/weaver, so I know that having some practical experience with a craft can really open your eyes to the whole process. Plus, making my own glass beads sounded great!
So, over an Easter break and from the recommendation of a friend, I booked a lesson with Mike Poole from Tillerman Beads. I had a fantastic time learning about making lampwork beads! I was using modern glass and a modern torch set up, so there are some differences in how working with glass in an Iron age furnace would be, but I still gained loads of insight. Mike was a great teacher with an interest in Iron Age, Roman, and early medieval beads, so it was wonderful to be taught by someone that had a background in what I was researching.
It wasn’t until several year later when trying to decide on an image for the front cover of my book, that I decided I would commission Mike to make a replica of the Queen’s Barrow necklace from the square barrow burials near Market Weighton in East Yorkshire. This spectacular necklace was made up of at least 100 beads, most of which are now on display in the Yorkshire Museum. There were other pieces of jewellery in this burial, including a copper alloy and coral pendant that may have hung from the strand of beads. There are also about a dozen beads in the collections at the British Museum, which you can find on their website.
I was really excited when the necklace arrived and it made me glad that I decided this would make an ideal front cover image. I really wanted an image that showed what Iron age glass beads would have looked like at the time, rather than the often broken and weathered beads that we see today. And I think these beads do this.
The key to any good research is a solid backbone from which to build your ideas. For my research on glass beads, I built a substantial database with information about each individual bead. I then used this to explore regional trends.
Building the database took hours and hours of time. I was lucky in that our university had an excellent collection of site reports for excavations in Britain. I literally sat in the university library going through entire journal runs, looking at every monograph, and requesting or purchasing reports that weren’t available in the library. Sometimes, when I got bored of sitting in the library, I would check out stacks and stacks of books and take them to my office to read them (I think to the amusement of my office-mates!). Not only did I record every bead from Iron Age and Roman period contexts, but I also recorded every instance of excavation at an Iron Age and/or Roman period site even if there were no glass beads. “Why on earth would you do this?” you may ask…. I asked this myself sometimes, but I thought it was important because I wanted to be able to say that there were x number of excavations in each study regions and glass beads were only found at y of them. It’s a common thought that Iron Age glass beads were rare, but there was no data to back this claim up!
Anyways…I’m getting off topic…
I also built my database up by visiting Historic Environment Record (HER) offices, accessing digital excavation reports through the Archaeology Data Service, and of course by visiting museums. I tried to measure as many individual beads as possible, even where this data was already published, for consistency. Sometimes reports stated that x number of beads were found and they measured between y and z. I wanted to be able to say the size of each bead, so that I could make scatter plot graphs that expressed diameter versus height.
All of this data collecting resulted in three main tables of data that I worked with: one that recorded excavated sites, one that recorded data about beads, and one that recorded data about other objects of personal adornment. This data accompanies the book published with Archaeopress, but you can also download it from the Resources page on this website. I hope that people will find it to be useful. If anyone has any question about the data, please send me a question and I’ll do my best to answer!
It has taken a long time and a lot of hard work, but I have finally finished my book. It is largely the same as my doctoral thesis, in fact very little of the actual text has changed. However, I took more time over the images, made the typology clearer, and re-arranged some of the text to make it flow better. It is my hope that it will become an invaluable resource to archaeologists anyone interested in prehistoric glass.
The book is Dress and Identity in Iron Age Britain: a study of glass beads and other objects of personal adornment and is being published through Archaeopress (ISBN: 9781784915261). There are lots of colour images of beads and it includes a download of the raw data. It should be available to purchase soon!
I hope that it will inspire small finds specialists to look at these beads in a new light. And please, do not think that I’ve done everything that could ever be done with Iron Age glass beads in this book. There is still so much potential for future research on these objects that I could never cover everything.
Anyways, now that it is done, I hope to be able to regularly update this website with blog posts more often.
It’s been a bit quiet on this blog, but it isn’t because I’ve forgotten my readers. For the last year I’ve been working very hard to prepare my thesis for publication and this has taken a very long time! Although there’s been very few changes to the text except for a bit of reorganization, I wanted to re-make most of my images for consistency and clarity. This has meant re-visiting a lot of my data, which has been very useful! I also wanted to approach the catalogues of site and artefact data a little bit differently than I did in my thesis text, which means that it will also be useful data that other people can use. I think that overall, it will be presented much better than it was in the thesis.
If nothing else, it has reminded me about a lot of topics that I aim to share on my blog and a lot of mini-research projects that I would like to undertake (and share here).
Once I’ve sent the text off and I have a better idea of when it will be published, I will of course share all details in another post. Till next time….
Although a history of glass in Britain begins in the Bronze Age, it is in the Iron Age (c. 800 BC – AD 43) that we find evidence for objects made of this material in increasing quantities. Glass objects in this period are mainly beads. In the past, studies have focused on typological and compositional analyses (Guido 1978, Henderson 1982), but this study aims to create a social understanding of the use of glass during this period. This poster will explore alternative approaches in early glass use in Britain and their implications for regional identities in the Iron Age.
Four study regions were selected for comparison that encompass a wide variety of archaeological evidence (Figure 1). Data was obtained from catalogues (Guido 1978, Henderson 1982), research and commercial excavation reports, and information gained first hand through analysis of museum collections. Glass beads are not evenly distributed throughout Britain (Figure 2), which may be the result of a suite of factors discussed elsewhere (Foulds 2014).
Analysis suggests that there were two major trends in glass colour and that strong regional
patterns are present (Figure 3). Blue and white are often combined, as are colourless and yellow (Figure 4*). Other colours are found in very small quantities and could be considered to be rare occurrences.
Dot and linear motifs are the main types of decoration found on these beads. Most dot motif
beads only have three dots created by layering two different colours, usually white and blue (Figure 5*). Large beads with dot motifs alternate in a 2-1-2 pattern (Figure 7). Linear designs exhibit a greater range of variability in both motif and colour (Figure 6*). Single wave/zig-zag beads are commonly found, but span the Iron Age and Roman periods. Spirals seem to be more distinctive to the Iron Age period. These analyses show that there were clear regional patterns, which suggest that they may have held important information when used or put on display in the Iron Age.
There are only a few instances where glass beads have been found within inhumations,
rendering it exceptionally difficult to understand how they were used. Were they all worn as necklaces or charms? Perhaps they were sewn into clothing? Or, used to adorn horses, or other animals? Could the largest examples have been used as spindle whorls? In the areas of study, there were 34 instances where glass beads were found in inhumations (Southwest England: 9; East Yorkshire: 25). Figure 8* shows some possible reconstructions.
Just as there are strong regional settlement and burial patterns for Iron Age Britain, there are also regional patterns in the glass beads and other dress objects. This may indicate that dress was used to mark out different regional identities. However, there is a danger in assuming that glass beads were intrinsically high status. For example, while they may seem rare compared to other types of material culture (e.g. brooches and coins), the number of known glass beads is the product of not only different regional and chronological practices in the past, but also different recovery techniques and methods in the present. Yet, at Wetwang Slack, East Yorkshire (3rd-2nd century BC cemetery), only 17 out of 446 graves contained glass beads (assumed to be necklaces/bracelets) These individuals account for approximately 3.8% of the cemetery population, which further adds to the mystery of Iron Age glass beads in Britain.
This research would not have been possible without the extraordinary help from a number of people and organisations: Doctoral thesis supervisors: Dr Tom Moore, Prof Richard Hingley; Funding bodies: Rosemary Cramp Fund, Prehistoric Society, Association for the History of Glass; all of the museums and Historic Environment Offices I visited; and of course a whole host of individuals that suffered through all my questions and read through copious drafts of my thesis.
It is extremely rare to find glass beads in British Iron Age burials. This is partially because there are so few burials of human remains that can be attributed to this period. It seems that the practice of burying the deceased in formal graves was not the dominant practice. Instead, the archaeological record suggests that different communities treated the dead differently. For example, the well known square burials from East Yorkshire (e.g. Wetwang Slack, Arras, etc.) were a part of a relatively short lived practice limited to this particular geographic region.
The Chesil Mirror Burial
One type of burial that is specific to the Iron Age, is the ‘Mirror Burial’. As the name suggests, these are burials of individuals where a mirror was included as part of the grave goods. The
Chesil Mirror burial from Dorset, discovered in 2010, is among the most recently found of this type of burial. The burial contained a young woman that was only about 18 or 20 years old when she died. Analysis of her skeletal remains shows that she suffered from poor health throughout her life. In addition to the mirror, her grave also contained a Langton Down and thistle brooch, a spiral copper alloy bracelet, tweezers, a perforated Roman denarius serratus, and eight beads. The artefacts allow the burial to be dated to around 15 BC at the earliest to about 50 or 60AD.
Taken as a whole, the date of burial and the range of artefacts included within the grave tell
an interesting story about the young woman and possibly local society at the end of the 1st century BC and early 1st century AD. She would not have been alive during Julius Caesar’s invasion, but she may have lived through the Claudian invasion of 43 AD. Nevertheless, she would have lived during a time of change and the artefacts included in her grave reflect this as she was buried with local (or
at least typical ‘British’) artefacts, as well as ‘Roman’, and potentially more general objects from continental Europe.
Of the eight beads that were found with the Chesil woman, three were made from stone and five are glass. All of the beads are annular in shape and all but one are very large. The smallest bead (Figure 1) is also the plainest. It was made from a purple-brown translucent glass, which is not a colour that is often used on beads from this period. There are striations around the circumference of the bead, but these probably resulted from weathering rather than from some sort of decoration.
Three of the other beads are similar in that the
decoration is formed by thin threads of contrasting glass that emirate from the perforation on one side of the bead and curve around to the other side. However, each of these three beads is different in colour and the way the contrasting decorative threads are executed. One is translucent blue with opaque yellow threads (Figure 2), another (Figure 3) is translucent purple with opaque white threads (and translucent purple cross-threads), and the third (Figure 4) is made from an opaque green glass and decorated with opaque white and a
brown-black glass. Beads made from translucent blue and opaque yellow glass are ‘normal’ colours for beads of this period, but these two colours aren’t often used together. The colours used on the other two beads are extremely unusual for this period. Translucent purple is almost unheard of, and this may be the only instance of the use of opaque green glass from this period in Britain. Although there are beads found elsewhere in Britain that are similar to these three beads, they are all made from different colours of glass. This makes these three beads unique in Britain, but also difficult to date. While they may be few in number in Britain, the style is well known in continental Europe, especially around the Upper Rhine, but they are also found in France, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic.
Although four of the beads are unusual and unique to Britain, the fifth bead (Figure 5), is a
well known type. There are a number of these beads, or fragments, found throughout southern Britain. Unfortunately, they were not found in clear contexts that would allow a date to be approximated. This particular type has also been noted in continental Europe, but are found in smaller numbers compared to the other three described above.
Unfortunately, it is unclear how the beads were placed with the remains of the young woman buried in the grave, as this may have helped to indicate how the beads were used. As there are so few inhumations from Iron Age Britain, and even fewer have had glass beads, it isn’t always clear how they were worn. The large size of the majority of the Chesil beads also makes it unclear how they were used. Figure 6 shows a hypothetical reconstruction of how the glass and stone beads would look if they were all strung together. However, the largest stone bead has a very large perforation, so in reality it would hang further down. It may be that they were worn like this, but it seems like this would be very awkward and heavy.
Rather than stringing the beads on string, perhaps they were worn differently? Maybe a loop of thread was tied around them and the perforation faced the viewer? Or, perhaps they weren’t worn at all, but were carried in a bag? Could they have been used as spindle whorls? It’s difficult to speculate an alternative use, especially given that the other artefacts are related to jewellery, dress, and maintenance of the body. However, mirrors may also have had a mystical aspect, so it may be that that the beads were related to divination in some way.
Details about the burial can be found here: Russell, M., 2013. ‘A grave with a mirror: the woman who wore a picture of a charioteer’, British Archaeology, no. 132, 36-41.
Haevernick, T. E., 1960. Die Glasarmringe Und Ringperlen Der Mittel- Und Spätlatènezeit Auf Dem Europäischen Festland. Bonn: Rudolf Habelt V erlag.
Joy, J., 2010. Reflections on the Iron Age: biographies of mirrors. BAR British Series 518: Oxford.
Whimster, R., 1981. Burial Practice in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 90: Oxford.