Rantin' and Rovin'

Got Swag? Investigating 1st Millennium Scottish Beads at SAA2015

I gave a talk about Scottish beads at the Annual Meeting for the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in San Francisco roughly a week ago. In the spirit of open access, I’m going to reproduce that talk here for you as best I can.


Today I’m going to be talking about the results of my master’s thesis, which looked at beads and bead trade in the first millennium AD within the bounds of modern day Scotland. By first millennium AD, I mean the period from just before the Romans to the end of the Norse. While Norse interaction straddles the first and second millenniums AD, I chose to leave them in the study rather than take them out. Also, while my research looked at all beads from this period, I am going to focus today on the glass assemblage.


The first thing everyone always asks me is “Why?” Why beads, why beads in Scotland, and why beads in Scotland during the first millennium AD.

Beads are one of the earliest known forms of human adornment, and glass beads are one of the most ubiquitous artifact categories of the first millennium AD throughout much of the world.

There are easily over 40,000 glass beads in the British Isles dating to this period, many of which are made from imported glass or are imports themselves. Yet, there are only 3 major studies of beads in Britain during this period, none of which focus on Scotland. The general assumption with any artifact in Scotland in the first millennium AD is that it came either directly or indirectly from the Romans, Irish, Anglo-Saxons, or Norse, so there hasn’t been much of a push to examine assemblages like the glass beads. Yet, these assumptions are based on virtually no physical study of the objects themselves. We are therefore overdue for a study focusing on Scottish beads that can provide evidence or lack thereof for these claims.



The primary goal of my research was to create a database of beads found in Scottish contexts possibly dating to the first millennium AD.

I also intended to chronologically and geographically analyze the distribution of materials, colors, shapes, designs, sizes, and manufacture. The study was largely trying to figure out what was there, so I kept the goals for potential analysis as broad as possible. My hope in the end was to be able to make some preliminary conclusions about beads in Scotland during the first millennium AD.


Those were the goals, now let’s talk about what actually happened…

I examined and documented 1288 glass beads from 187 sites, most of which were housed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh or the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. I was able to look at the distributions of color, shape, and design (in the case of polychrome beads), but there were some issues.

First, most of these sites have between 1 and 5 beads. Most sites with only 1-5 beads usually have a polychrome bead, but site-by-site conclusions are nearly impossible with so few beads each.

In addition, most of these beads have little to no context. They tend to be stray finds found when someone was digging their garden or walking along the beach. The ones that come from excavations often have little to no recorded context that is still accessible, or the site report is not published yet and contextual information isn’t available.

Finally, many of these beads haven’t been examined since the 1950s. Many of them were kept in old pillboxes or various other containers and aren’t necessarily registered. My personal favorite is this one in the bottom corner. It’s a matchbox that says, “Bead found on lab floor, June 1957.” Inside the matchbox was a finds bag with the bead inside.

I will note that part of this research was assisting the institutions in repackaging their bead collections for safe transfer to a new storage facility, so the packaging issues have since been remedied. It did lead to a very interesting debate about what to do with the matchbox, however, since that was now associated with the object.

But returning to my own research, it became clear that analyzing these collections was going to be very difficult.



The good news, though, was that I was able to examine 1288 glass beads across 187 sites. This map shows all the sites with glass beads from contexts possibly dating to the first millennium AD, sized relative to the number of beads at each site. You’ll notice the majority have less than 5 beads, and very few sites have over 25. There is also one site with over 500 beads. This is Culbin Sands, on the Moray coast. It seems to be a bit of an outlier, but it’s difficult to say due to issues surrounding excavation both at Culbin and at other sites in Scotland.


In terms of color, Scottish assemblages as a whole are roughly 1/3 opaque yellow beads, 1/3 translucent cobalt blue beads, and ¼ either a light, translucent turquoise or an opaque or translucent “black.” The remaining 12% are largely green, with some red, orange, and colorless beads.



This is actually rather different from the beads associated with other groups in the region. Anglo-Saxon assemblages have far more red beads, a smaller percentage of yellow beads, and far fewer cobalt blue beads. Scandinavian assemblages at the time of Norse presence in Scotland were generally red and yellow, with green and blue being secondary. If Scottish beads are coming from neighboring groups either through trade or immigration without much alteration in preference or use by local groups, then we should see far more red beads in Scotland.


When looking at specifically polychrome beads, most other groups tend to have millefiori beads, combed designs, reticella, and lots of eye beads. Also swag and double swag, at least enough to be mentioned.

All of the styles you see above the chart are said to originate with other groups: namely the Romans, Irish, Pre-Roman Iron Age groups, Anglo-Saxons, or Scandinavians. But, each style is claimed by at least 2-3 of these groups. This calls into question any claim stating one of these styles is specifically Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon or what have you.

These regions do often have certain styles that seem rather popular and somewhat distinct, particularly certain types of millefiori beads. But none of those appear in the Scottish assemblages.Slide 09-A

Slide 09-BThere are certain beads associated with outside groups that do follow expectations. Faience beads correspond beautifully to the region between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall (click), while drawn segmented beads, often seen as Norse, (click) correspond to coastal sites, most of which have evidence of Norse interaction or settlement.



There are also some styles known to be distinctly Scottish. Those make up roughly 60% of the polychrome beads in this study.

The first is often referred to as Class 13, after Guido, and are generally a dark blue or “black” triangular core with opaque yellow spirals either on the edges or corners of the triangle. I say “black,” because as you can see, they are usually not a true black. When backlit, they can be green, orange, dark blue, or even a bright magenta. These are the most common Scottish design and are shown in red on the map.

The second style is usually referred to as Class 14, and are usually a very dark, annular or doughnut-like core with several spirals of opaque or translucent glass, usually yellow or a yellow/colorless reticella. As you can see, these are also “black.” There are far fewer of them that I saw, and they are shown in green on the map.


There is also one style that seems to indicate some form of experimentation or innovation. These beads have a marbled opaque trail of glass inside a translucent core, such that the two colors combine to make a tricolor bead. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, and I haven’t really seen mention of it in the literature, so if anyone has seen this before, I’d love to hear about it.


Scotland certainly seems to have its own separate set (or sets) of preferences and practices when it comes to glass beads. Originally, I was going to leave my paper at that, but my curiosity got the better of me over the past week. Since there is no evidence for glass workshops in Scotland at this time, any glass would be imported somehow. Ewan Campbell has done enormous amounts of work on trade routes in Scotland during the first millennium, particularly in regards to glass vessels and a style of ceramics called E-ware.

When looking at beads that are clearly imported (i.e. drawn beads), however, the distributions don’t match up.

Furthermore, there is the idea in much of Scottish archaeology that most of the glass beads found in Scotland, if not direct imports, are made from recycled, imported glass vessels.

If that were the case, however, we should expect some correlation between the color of imported glass vessels and the colors of beads. As you can see, that’s not really the case at all. While it seems there may be a correlation in yellow beads and vessels, the yellow of the beads is the opaque, bright yellow, whereas the vessels are a pale, nearly colorless, transparent/translucent yellow. We also see almost no examples of dark blue glass vessels.

I thought perhaps that was because all those vessels were being remelted, but when we look at drawn beads (which are imported without being remelted), we have similar color proportions to the Scottish beads as a whole, and still a vastly different picture than the imported glass colors.

This might therefore suggest different preferences for colors in beads versus vessels, but it may also suggest regional differences or differences in trade networks. This is very preliminary, however, and so more work is needed before any conclusions can be made.



In conclusion, Scottish bead assemblages are not simply imported material from other groups or the influx of those groups themselves. They have different distributions of color and design than their neighbors and there are certain types that are distinctly Scottish. There is an agency and autonomy here. Looking at the beads versus imported glass vessels, preliminary results suggest differences in color preference for beads versus vessels in Scotland at this time, though this may also indicate regional differences or possibly separate trade networks. As always, more work is needed on this subject, particularly on the relation of glass beads to glass vessels, but the net result is that Scottish glass beads are more complex than previously thought, and need to be studied in their own right.



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