A recently recorded glass bead from the Portable Antiquities Scheme provides
valuable insight into how late prehistoric beads were used. LON-041951(Figure 1) is a large translucent blue bead with a number of opaque white spirals that sit on protrusions in the glass. These spirals alternate between single occurrences and pairs along the circumference of the bead. It is reported to measure 25.60 mm in diameter, 16.37 mm in thickness and with a perforation diameter of 9.24 mm. It weighs 15.67 grams.
This type of glass bead is well known in Britain and can be attributed to the
Iron Age. Many examples, and those of a similar type, were recorded in Margaret Guido’s (1978) catalogue, while new examples have been discovered and subsequently recorded by the author (Foulds 2014). Guido classified these beads as her Class 6 Oldbury type. Many of the known examples are similar in appearance to the London example. However, a very small number present differences in colour, the complexity of the motif, and differences in the placement of the spirals.
Further examination by Foulds (2014) has shown that, despite exhibiting similar characteristics in the use of colour and decoration, there are some differences in the appearance of these
beads that cannot be quantified. For example, the execution of the spirals and the presence or degree of the raised protrusions varies. No two examples found in Britain look truly the same. However, the 31 examples made from a combination of blue and white glass (including the London find) cluster tightly based on the diameter and height dimensions. This suggests that there is some degree of cohesiveness to the type. A refinement in the typology has been suggested by classing all beads with spiral decorations together in Class 6g and then further sub-dividing the beads into specific types based on the number of spirals and placement on the surface, and the colours used. The presence or degree of protrusion has not been used as an attribute in the classification because its significance is unclear. The majority of examples fall into Type 1407, although in cases where the placement of the spiral is different, or the colours are different, the beads would be classed differently.
Very few of the Type 1407 beads were found through excavation, as most
were found as stray finds. A handful of examples have been recently discovered through excavation, but most are found accidentally, or through non-excavation processes. Out of all the beads that may date to the Iron Age on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, this type of bead is the most commonly reported after plain undecorated beads (many of which probably date to a later period). There are currently five other examples that are published on the database (SWYOR-EBF2F4, LVPL-26BA21, YORYM-7DAAE6, SF-62EB92, LIN-3A9556). It is interesting that out of all the possible types of Iron Age beads found in Britain and recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, that Type 1407 is the most abundant. This could be in part due to their large size or reflective surface sheen, as some examples exhibit remarkably little or minimal weathering that dulls the surface. However, it may be that this was a very abundant type of bead, but that their popularity in the Iron Age is not accurately reflected in the number of excavated examples.
In comparison to most other Iron Age glass beads from Britain, Type 1407 is
very large and has a very large perforation varying from 4.1 to 12.6 mm. The London bead is particularly exciting because a copper alloy ring is threaded through the perforation. Exceptionally few beads are found in circumstances that demonstrate how they were used. In the case of these large beads, it has been unclear whether they were strung onto material of a correspondingly large diameter. If material of a smaller diameter was used, it would have to have been strong enough to withstand the weight of the bead. A thin organic thread made from wool or linen may not have been strong enough, but a thick woollen thread or leather thong would have been able to withstand the weight, especially if several were strung together.
Judging from the image, the wire that forms the copper alloy ring is only a
few millimetres in diameter. There is a small area where the two ends of wire overlap. The perforation displays a considerable amount of wear, which was probably caused by long term abrasion against the copper alloy. This suggests that the bead may have been allowed to dangle freely. The implication is that the wire ring attached the bead to something else, although to what is unclear. The overlapped wire may mean that the bead could be attached and later detached if needed.
Despite the importance of the copper alloy ring, it remains unclear whether it
attached the bead to something that allowed it to be worn on the human body as a part of dress. Although the rings could have been removed from a bead prior to deposition, most beads do not exhibit the same extent of wear as is visible on the London example. Only one out of more than 50 examples of Type 1407 was found on a metal ring, suggesting that this is highly unusual and potentially even unique. This further reinforces the idea that all beads from a single type cannot be said to have been used in one particular way, as each example could be used differently and that use could change throughout its life.
Foulds, E. M., 2014. Iron Age Glass Beads in Britain: The Social Context, PhD Thesis: Durham University. http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/10523/.
Guido, M., 1978. The Glass Beads of the Prehistoric and Roman Periods in Britain and Ireland, London: The Society of Antiquaries of London Report no. 35.
(This paper appeared in the December 2014 Later Prehistoric Finds Group Newsletter available here)