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.