The Late Bronze Age in County Durham

One of the things that I really love about archaeology is that there is always something to learn. We might develop areas of specialty, but a single person could never learn it all (in fact, we could never learn it all because so much of archaeology is based on interpretations of evidence and our ideas and hypotheses that we form while trying to understand the actions and beliefs of people in the past).  Last year, I had the opportunity to write a treasure report on a hoard from the Late Bronze Age. I have a broad background in a lot of periods, but I have to confess that I haven’t spent much time studying this particular period! So, writing the report gave me the perfect opportunity to learn more.

In Britain, the Bronze Age lasts from about 2500 to 800 BC (around 1,700 years) and is divided into three sub-periods (early, middle, late). I’m not going to be able to go into detail about the period here, but I’ve included some useful resources below if you want to read more. In general though, this period is marked by the use of metals, agriculture, large megalithic monuments and changes to how the dead were buried. The Late Bronze Age is a very short sub-period of only 300 years: from 1000 to 700 BC. By the end of this period we see iron start to be used, but not in large quantities.

One practice that existed during the Late Bronze Age and other periods was ‘hoarding’, which is the deliberate burial of a group of objects. There are many reasons why a person might choose to do this, but in general we can say that some might have been buried for safe keeping and the owner intended to return to collect the stash at a later time. I like to think of these as a sort of bank deposit box or safe for putting valuables in. There are also some hoards that were probably buried without the intention of retrieving the objects in the future. In these cases there was probably a social significance for the burial that might be a ritual or spiritual reason. Sometimes the artefacts themselves can hint at the intentions (for example: high value objects or scrap for recycling), but often it can be difficult to know sometimes whether a hoard of objects was placed in the ground with the aim of returning, or whether they were simply not retrieved for other reasons.

When found, prehistoric hoards are usually legally classed as ‘Treasure’ because they’re a group of two or more metallic objects found in the same context. In this case they don’t need to contain gold or silver to be Treasure. As part of this process, a report needs to be written, which forms the permanent record for the find. Just like in a report that I would write for a commercial or research excavation, each object should be measured, weighed and described. Where possible, a discussion section should discuss the artefacts, make comparisons with other similar contemporary examples and place the find in a local, national, or even international context depending on the nature of the finds.

The report on the hoard that I wrote while working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme can be seen published here: DUR-F9B0D6 (Figure 1). It was found near Eggleston in County Durham in 2019 by a metal-detectorist. The village is located at the foot of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was a hoard dating to the Late Bronze Age, which I dated primarily from the spearhead type (pegged) and puts it in the Ewart Park phase (c. 1000-800 BC). There was also a Thorndon type knife (also pegged), a tanged knife, beads made from amber and jet, at least two bronze rings and three different types of bronze pins or nails.

Figure 1: The hoard from near Eggleston, County Durham (c) Durham County Council (CC BY).

From what I’ve learned about hoards from this period, these are all fairly typical objects. What may be more unusual is the very finely beaten and decorated scrap of gold foil (it was also impossible to photograph well!) and four decorated ‘terminals’ (Figure 2). The terminals are a cast cylinder shape with a hollow centre and they have an attachment flange sticking out to the side. They seem to have been cast in one piece because there’s no sign of any joins. On each of the terminals, one of the cylinder faces was decorated with concentric circles. Two of the terminals had a wooden attachment piece in the side flange. Although one of the wooden pieced had dropped out of  its terminal, the other was still attached and seems to be held in place by a piece of twisted string. I was really excited to see the string and fragment of wood because being organic, these types of components don’t often survive. The wood fragments were carefully carved  into domed shaped ends (presumably to fit onto something else) and are faceted from being carved.

In 2020 I gave a paper about this hoard to the Later Prehistoric Finds Group, which allowed me to build on the research I had done for the Treasure report. I wanted to draw attention to the hoard for its research potential given the terminals were so unusual and because of the surviving fragments of string. On its own, the hoard also lacked context because it was found by chance by a metal-detectorist. I wanted to find a way to situate the hoard within the other evidence we have for Late Bronze Age County Durham.

Figure 2: Decorated bronze terminal with wood peg inside and string (c) Durham County Council (CC BY).

What I found was that there were several other Late Bronze Age hoards from the west side of County Durham. There are several recorded on the PAS database, but perhaps the best known is the Gilmonby Hoard and Heathery Burn cave hoard. The Heathery Burn Cave hoard is in the British Museum and many of the objects are photographed or illustrated in their online catalogue. Both of these hoards were much larger than the Eggleston area hoard and had a greater range of object types.

I was also able to do a quick analysis of the Historic Environment Record data courtesy of the HER officer for Co. Durham, which showed that there was quite a lot of general Bronze Age activity in the western area of the county, but I would really need to do more research to review the evidence to refine this further to the later period.

The Eggleston area hoard certainly has the potential for further research, including identification of the wood and string material. I think it would also be beneficial to see an analysis of the Late Bronze Age material culture from the Pennines as well as a more detailed analysis of the archaeological landscape in an upland environment.

If you want to learn more about the Bronze Age more generally, you might be interested in these books:

Hunter, J., Ralston, I. 2009. The Archaeology of Britain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. See Chapter 6 on the Later Bronze Age by Timothy Champion.

Parker Pearson, M. 2005. Bronze Age Britain. Batsford/English Heritage.

Petts, D., Gerrard, C. 2006. Shared Visions: The North-East Regional Research Framework for the Historic Environment. Durham County Council. See page 33 for a summary of the evidence for Late Bronze Age and Iron Age activity in the North East.

Header Image credits: (c) Durham County Council (CC BY)


Guest Post: Boudica the Redhead? The Difficulty in Translating Ancient Colour Words

By Jo Zalea Matias

Boudica (d. AD 60 or 61), rebel queen of the Iceni (Image 1) is stereotypically depicted in the present day with a mane of long, fiery hair – one could even say that this is one of her defining features. This is true in both academically produced images in books to video games like Total War: Rome II (Image 2). But where does this depiction come from? In this post, I will discuss the origin of descriptions of Boudica, focusing primarily on her hair, the archaeology, and ultimately the difficulty in translating ancient Greek colour words.

Image 1: Map of Iceni territory in England(Wikipedia 2020, CC BY-SA, Author: Yorkshirian).
Image 2: Boudica in the video game Total War: Rome II (Total War: Rome II 2013).

Unfortunately, there is little to no archaeological evidence that can help us conclude anything about Boudica’s appearance – though there is some evidence that corroborates with events attributed to her. In 1611, John Speed attributed the inscription “BODUO” (and therefore, possibly referring to Boudica) to a silver coin with a Celticised head (Image 3). The coin was thought to be archaeological evidence for Boudica and therefore contained a possible depiction of her, but scholars have since attributed the coin to “BODVOC” and it is Dobunni in origin rather than Iceni. 

Image 3: BODVOC Dobunni coin with Celticised head (Classical Numismatic Group 2004).

Without archaeological evidence, the only other way to gain insight into her appearance is through classical Greek and Roman sources. Boudica is mentioned twice by Tacitus (Agricola and Annals) and once by Cassius Dio (Dio’s Rome). Tacitus, whilst writing within a lifetime of Boudica, never mentions her appearance. Cassius Dio does have a description of Boudica, though he is writing more than one hundred years after her death and therefore, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Below are two different translations of Dio’s description of Boudica:

“In person she was very tall, with a most sturdy figure and a piercing glance; her voice was harsh; a great mass of yellow hair fell below her waist and a large golden necklace clasped her throat; wound about her was a tunic of every conceivable color and over it a thick chlamys had been fastened with a brooch.” -62.1 (Foster 1905)

“In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.” -62.1 (Cary and Foster 1914:84-85)

Between the two translations, two different colour words are used for Boudica’s hair: yellow and tawny. Foster’s death in 1906 means that changes between the translations could possibly be attributed to Cary. Cary and Foster’s (1914) translation, which has the original Greek next to the English, uses the word ξανθοτάτην, which translates to “very xanthos,” with τάτην as the feminine suffix of the absolute superlative -τατος (-τατος 2020) to the Greek colour word xanthos or ξανθός.

What does xanthos mean? It is most commonly translated as “blonde,” though it can also be more specific and include “a tinge of red, brown, auburn” (University of Chicago Logeion 2020). This could be the origin of modern representations of Boudica’s red hair, whilst also accounting for different translations describing Boudica’s hair as anything from blonde to yellow to tawny to red – and there are images of Boudica with blonde or tawny hair (Image 4). However, it is important to be cautious about applying modern colour words and concepts onto ancient ones. Colour is not a monolithic concept, and different cultures perceived and conceptualised colours differently across time and space. 

Image 4: Boudica with blonde/tawny hair, illustration by Christina Unwin at the British Museum (Author’s own photograph).

Xanthos found itself at the center of interpretative debate in 2018, when racist comments were made about the casting of Ghanian-born actor David Gyasi as Achilles (Image 5) in the Netflix and BBC miniseries Troy: Fall of a City. Those protesting Gyasi’s casting refer to xanthos being used to describe Achilles’ hair (Vassar College 2018). Classical scholars responded to this, saying that using “blonde” as a translation for xanthos is outdated, linked to debunked theories of Greece being invaded by Northern Europe (ibid.)

Image 5: David Gyasi as Achilles (Troy: Fall of a City 2018).

Furthermore, it would be simplistic to say that Greek colour words can be translated one-for-one to modern colour words. Scholars like former British Prime Minister William Gladstone (b.1809–d.1898) used terms like Homer’s “wine-dark sea” to argue that the Greeks were colourblind (Bradley 2013: 127), but the reality is that the ancient Greeks had different concepts of color. Indeed, elsewhere Bradley argues that the Latin flauus, which is used in a similar vein to xanthos, does not always equate to blond, but has two different meanings. First, “it represents the Greek glaukos in referring to the sparkle of moving water…or to the underside of olive leaves” (Bradley 2009:4), but has also been used to refer to: “(1) ash/sand/mud/dust; (2) honey/wax; (3) hair; (4) ripe corn; (5) gold; (6) skin; along with a seventh category for one-offs such as wedding bonds (uincula), bile, and wine” (ibid.). The first uses flauus as a quality rather than a colour, whilst the items in the second are varied and do not always fall into the modern definition of blond.

The idea of colour words referring to a quality rather than a definitive colour is an interesting one. Colours become more than lightwaves and are real and inextricably linked with the experiences of the world around us (Bradley 2013:130). In other words, ancient Greek concepts may have been synaesthetic – that is, crossing over more than one sense – in this case, sight. Returning to flauus, its application to cornfields and olive-leaf garlands is not only due to the colour itself, but their “similar tactile qualities and associations” (ibid, 132). In this case, flauus is appealing not only to sight, but to touch and perhaps even smell. Homer’s “wine-dark sea” (Image 6) even adds an emotional element, not just referring to a tumultuous sea that parallels the colour and bubbles of fermenting wine, but the emotions and experiences of Achilles and Odysseus on those waters (ibid., 133).

Image 6: The “wine-dark sea”? (Cajina 2018).

What does this mean for Boudica? Should artists, video game designers, and the like adhere to the strict definition of xanthos and stop portraying her as a redhead? If anything, this discussion of Greek colour words demonstrates a great deal of flexibility and interpretation. Bradley’s use of emotion to help with the translation of “wine-dark sea” could be applied to Boudica as well. She is a compelling, emotional figure in both Tacitus and Cassius Dio as she calls for rebellion against Rome – so why not use xanthos to add a layer of meaning to the colour of her hair?


Bradley, M. (2009) Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bradley, M. (2013) Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity. In Butler, S. and Purves, A.C. (eds): Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, pp. 127-140. London, Routledge.

Cajina, I. (2018) Aerial view photography of sea, photograph, viewed 28 October 2020.

Cary, E. & Foster, H. B. (1914) Roman history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (2003) Very Rare Bodvoc Silver Unit, viewed 27 October 2020.

Creative Assembly and Sega (2013) Total War: Rome II. [Online] Windows PC. London: Creative Arts and Sega.

Foster, H.B. (1905) Dio’s Rome, Volume V., Books 61-76 (A.D. 54-211) An Historical Narrative Originally Composed In Greek During The Reigns Of Septimius Severus, Geta And Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus And Alexander Severus: And Now Presented In English Form By Herbert Baldwin Foster, Project Gutenberg, viewed 27 October 2020.

Troy: Fall of a City (2018) BBC One Television, 28 February-7 April.

University of Chicago Logeion (2020) ξανθός, viewed 28 October 2020.

Wikipedia (2020) Boudica: Location of Iceni territory in eastern England; modern county borders are shown, viewed 9 November 2015.

Vassar College (2018) “Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 2: What did Achilles look like?” Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics, blog post, viewed 28 October 2020.

Wiktionary (2020) ‘-τατος’ ,viewed 28 October 2020.

Featured image: Karidis, C. (2017) Boadicea and Her Daughters, photograph, viewed 12 November 2020.

Dr. Jo Zalea Matias is a lecturer in Anthropology at Wilbur Wright College and Harold Washington College. She specializes in issues of gender and identity in Iron Age Britain and France, and is also interested in popular media and academic representations of the past, particularly in terms of gender, as well as the archaeological use of social media. You can find her on twitter as @jz_matias.

Tools of the artefact specialist

When you get down to it, archaeology is a bit of a funny subject. We make use of specialised tools like magnetometers to do geophysical surveys and we use scientific instruments like XRF and LA-ICP-MS for materials analysis. Yet, the field archaeologist usually uses tools like the iconic trowel, shovels, mattocks and often a digger if you have a large area of turf and topsoil to clear. Recording is still often done by hand on paper, although there are some growing options for digital recording.

Like the field archaeologist, the tools of the artefact specialist tend to be quite simple. Initial artefact records are usually concerned with visual examination and measurements related to size and weight. In this blog post I’m going to discuss some useful tools for specialists and hopefully share some tricks that will help.

Measuring size

Calipers: when working with small finds, a good pair of calipers are an essential tool. Digital calipers allow measurements to be taken quickly, but manual calipers are a good alternative (Wikipedia has a useful GIF for learning how to read manual calipers). Most calipers will come in 6-inch or 12-inch sizes and are either made from plastic or metal. Having both sizes can be useful, especially if you’re working with both large and small artefacts. I usually just use my 6-inch because it’s more convenient. The choice between plastic and metal might not make a difference for some users, but it’s worth bearing in mind that metal can damage artefacts if not used carefully. 

Other tips:

  • Calipers are also great because you can use the stem to measure the depth of an object.
  • Use the larger arms for measuring the external dimension and the smaller upper arms for the internal dimension.
  • You can also buy external digital calipers, which would be useful for measuring large and/or complex shaped objects because they have curved arms.

Ruler/tape measure: despite being a ‘small’ find specialist, I am sometimes sent quite large artefacts. Don’t let the name fool you, small finds aren’t always ‘small’. In these cases, you will need a ruler or tape measure to record dimensions from these large objects, because your calipers will be too small.

String or flexible measuring tape: depending on what you’re measuring, if it’s a large or awkwardly shaped artefact, you can measure it with a flexible fabric measuring tape (like what seamstresses use). Alternatively, you can use a piece of string to measure an artefact and then compare the length to a ruler. I would only use this second method in circumstances where no other method has or could work, because it’s less likely to be accurate.

Rim diameter chart: if you’re working with vessels made from ceramic, glass, or metal, you’ll want a rim diameter chart. By placing a rim sherd on the chart and moving it until you find a curve best fit, you’ll be able to estimate the original diameter of the vessel rim. This is an essential process for vessel studies of all material types. You can download a rim chart HERE.

Imperial drill bits: clay pipe internal bore diameter is measured in 64s of an inch and this has remained the standard so that assemblage data is comparable. Although using the tapered bore gauged can be quicker, if a stem or bowl can’t be fully cleaned then the drill bit can be used to help gauge the size (use the non-drill end).

Tapered bore gauge: this isn’t an essential tool, but I recently discovered these. It’s really useful for taking the internal diameter of an object. I bought one that has imperial measurements (good for clay pipe bore diameters) and metric (good for anything else). I recently used mine while recording a clay pipe assemblage and I found it really useful.

Measuring weight

Digital scale: in the UK, artefact weight is usually recorded in grams, so please use a scale that reports weight in that unit. Use a digital scale, it will make your life so much easier. Again, like with the measuring devices mentioned above, you will probably want one scale that is very accurate for light weight artefacts where precision matters (such as coins, beads, etc.) and another scale that has a larger maximum weight for heavier objects.

Other useful items

Hand lens: out of all the other tools listed in this section, this is one of the most essential tools. You can take your preference with the power of the magnification. I opted for one with two lenses and a switch for two LED lights, which really saves my  eyes from strain.

Small LED torch/flashlight: a small LED torch is great for checking the colour and translucency of glass. Some dark translucent glass can appear opaque until light is shone through it and doing so can reveal some surprising colours. It can also help light any dark areas on an artefact, like the interior of a clay pipe bowl.

Tip: a vertical light can make faint decoration or maker’s marks hard to see, so use a raking light to help pick out detail.

Tooth picks or bamboo skewers: these are useful for cleaning dirt off an artefact, but real cleaning and conservation should only be done by a trained professional conservator. However, if it’s just a little bit of loose fresh soil on a recently excavated artefact, this can usually be carefully picked off with a little bit of pressure. If this doesn’t do the trick, then leave it for a conservator to do because you could damage the artefact.

Magnet: these are really useful for quickly testing if an artefact has iron content.

Tip: slag doesn’t usually have a high iron content and won’t usually be magnetic.

Petrie dishes: this might seem like an odd addition to the tool kit, but when working with really tiny objects, like beads, it is really helpful for making sure they don’t roll away and get lost on your carpeted floor.

Tweezers:  like the Petri dishes, this is probably only something that’s useful if you’re working with really tiny and/or fragile objects. I got a pair of bamboo tweezers, but rubber tipped ones might also work if used carefully.

USB microscope: totally not a necessity, but another good tool for working with really small objects, or artefacts with tiny detail, like coins. A USB microscope also lets you take pictures, so you can study them later.

Other office equipment

Trays: when I’m studying or recording artefacts, I really like to set them out on a tray. Artefacts are often dirty and/or crumbly (hello iron artefacts!) and I don’t want that all over my desk or office floor. Plastic trays (do they still use these in cafeterias?) are great for containing the mess. Newspaper would also work, but because the page can have a lot of printing on them I would worry about forgetting to put an artefact away and then accidently sticking it in the recycling bin when I’m done, so I don’t do that!

Desk lamp: A good desk lamp with a daylight bulb is really helpful for illuminating the artefacts you’re recording. On sunny days, I usually don’t need to use a light in my office, but on dark days or if I’m working in the evening (yuck!) an office lamp is essential. You can also get a lamp with a magnifying glass built in.

Spare keyboard and mouse: I am a bit of a clean freak when it comes to my computer and I don’t like getting my laptop dirty. I have a spare USB wireless keyboard that I use when doing messy work. I also have a spare mouse, but it goes through batteries quickly, so I just wipe my usual mouse down after recording artefacts.

Final thoughts

The digital calipers, digital scale and hand lens are the tools that I think are absolutely essential for most artefact recording, but you may find some of these other tools to be useful too. I hope that this helps and don’t forget our resources page has a basic database and paper based recording form for keeping all of your data organised!

Please comment below if I’ve missed out any useful tools, or if you have any tips or tricks that you want to share 🙂

Researching Roman Dividers

For the last twelve months I was lucky enough to work as an Assistant Finds Liaison Officer in the Durham Portable Antiquities Scheme office. This was a part-time role supported by the Headley Trust for the first six months and I am grateful that it was extended for another 6 months for one day a week. Working on the Portable Antiquities Scheme has been a wonderful experience. I have enjoyed talking to finders (mostly metal-detectorists) about their finds and the chance to research artefacts I was less familiar with. I used to be really intimidated at the prospect of identifying coins, but having access to training and the right resources allowed me to grow my confidence. Let’s just say, I may actually like coins!

Roman dividers DUR-83CC6C (© Durham County Council CC BY)

One of the objects that I came across while working through a finder’s collection was a pair of dividers (DUR-83CC6C). Dividers are a measuring device that allow the user to measure one thing and compare it to something else. They could be used by carpenters, blacksmiths and stone masons, but also on written documents or drawings (Manning 2011, 83). Dividers were even depicted on the tombstone of a carpenter P. Beitenos Hermes (shown in this blog) along with other tools. One of our volunteers had already written a good description of the dividers and I was checking over their work before making the record ‘live’ and publicly accessible. I was really happy with the descriptive work our volunteer had done and they had suggested that they dated to the Roman period. I was only planning to add an extra line or two about other comparable examples, but the more I read, the more I was intrigued. Apparently, Roman dividers are a rare object (Worrell 2005).

I am going to show in this post the process I went through to confirm the identification and write up the database entry. I hope that this will be useful to readers.

Confirm the material

Visual examination showed that the object was made from a copper alloy. The metal is in really good condition, but there were a couple of patches of powdery green corrosion. There was a spot on one of the arms where the dividers were recently scratched, which showed a lovely metallic orange-yellow. A little area of iron staining could be seen on the pivot area, but because it wasn’t substantial there was no reason to think that the surviving portion was made up of more than one material. I was happy that this object was indeed made from a copper alloy.

Confirm the object type and period

It may seem obvious, but it is worth confirming you’re happy with the object identification. When I work with artefacts that come off excavation sites they sometimes have initial identifications. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong (this is totally expected and okay!). In this case, I started by looking at records for all other dividers on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website by period. I then checked online museum collection databases (the British Museum and Museum of London online collections are excellent research tools). I also checked the finds sections of excavation reports that cover the Roman period to the post-medieval. I searched for both ‘dividers’, ‘calipers’ and ‘callipers’ in case sources used different terminology.

Some examples of other Roman dividers from the Portable Antiquities Scheme website. Left: NMS-DEB0C2 (© Norfolk County Council CC BY-SA), Centre: BERK-8A377C (© Oxfordshire County Council CC BY), Right: NARC-B85204 (© Northamptonshire County Council CC BY-SA)

I made a list of all dividers I found on the PAS database, museum collections databases and excavation reports I could find. I also compiled all the images I could find of the dividers. In this particular instance, I experimented with using OneNote for organising the information about each example and created a separate page for the images so that I could see them all together and move them around. After reading through the description of each example, I made  list of any citations mentioned in the descriptions or discussions and followed up on those until I couldn’t find any more information. If I had more time I would have followed up with a library visit to check published excavation reports for additional examples, but in this instance I had already compiled enough information for the purposes of a PAS database entry.

I mostly found images of Roman and post-medieval dividers, which were very distinctive. Most examples were made from copper-alloy, but there were a couple made from iron (British Museum: 1870,0402.459 from Colchester; Cunliffe 1971, no.186, fig. 53, Bushe-Fox 1913, LON-960EA3, and possibly Casey and Davies 1993, 189, no. 282, fig. 10.13). The copper-alloy examples seem to be made from several parts: the two arms, the spindle with decorated heads at either end, and an iron wedge that was inserted into the spindle hole that kept the arms locked.

DUR-83CC6C has faint decoration along the surviving arm. Other Roman examples were similarly decorated, but it seems that the actual style and motifs might be individually unique. Many other examples also had animal heads on one or both ends of the spindle, which DUR-83CC6C did not have. Instead, the head was dome shaped with a radial design. As the other head was missing, it is possible that it had one animal head or none at all.

Based on the similarity in form with other examples considered to be of Roman period date, I was happy to suggest that this one also probably dated to that period.


Once I was confident that the object was in fact a set of dividers and dated to the Roman period, I then wrote some discussion text to supplement the database record. This is placed after the general description of the dividers. I decided to focus the discussion on comparing DUR-83CC6C to the other examples. I would have liked to have used part of the discussion section to address the dividers’ date, as ‘Roman’ is quite vague. However, even with the excavated examples taken into account, there just wasn’t the evidence to be able to narrow this down more.

Illustration of DUR-83CC6C (© Durham county Council CC BY-NC-SA)


I decided to do an illustration of the dividers because the decoration on the arms is quite faint and difficult to see on the photographs. I have found learning to illustrate artefacts to be a useful process, as I notice details that I didn’t see during my initial examination. Taking a methodical approach to illustrated artefacts really forces you to look at every millimetre and break it down into simple lines. I also noticed that, curiously, the design on one edge didn’t match the design on the opposing edge, which I though was rather odd! I had assumed that the decoration on one edge would be mirrored on the other edge. I’m not sure why this would be the case and it is certainly something I’ll look out for in the future.

Final thoughts

I hope that this provides a useful overview of the process I went through to research an artefact that I was unfamiliar with. Going through the process reminded me that there is so much we don’t know about Roman artefacts and highlights that there is so much more that we can learn. It would be interesting to compare the examples found in Britain with those found elsewhere in Europe and especially with the depictions of tools on tombstones and paintings. I’m curious to know whether many examples were decorated and whether the decoration may indicate use.


Bushe-Fox, J.P. (1913) Excavation on the Site of the Roman Town at Wroxeter, Shropshire. Society of Antiquaries of London Research Committee Report.

Casey, P.J., Davies, J.L. (1993) Excavations at Segontium (CAERNARFON) Roman Fort, 1975-1979. CBA Research Report 90.

Cunliffe, B. (1971) Excavations at Fishbourne 1961-1969, vol. 2: the finds. Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiqs London 27.

Manning, W.H. (2011) ‘Industry’ in Allason-Jones, L. Artefacts in Roman Britain. Their purpose and use.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 68–88.

Worrell, S. (2005) ‘Finds reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, Britannia 36, 447–472.

Image notes

In the composite photo above, the only alternation made to the original images was that they were cropped and set to a similar scale for comparability. Copyright attributions for the individual images are given above.

Becoming a finds specialist

Freddie and I are artefact specialists and we both followed similar paths. I did a PhD that allowed me to study Iron Age glass beads and other artefacts, which allowed me to gain an in depth understanding about how dress was constructed during the Iron Age and Roman period. I did my research by reading hundreds of excavation reports to build an artefact dataset from published and unpublished reports and I visited collections that were mostly held in museums. A couple of the collections I recorded were from recent excavations and had not been deposited at a museum yet and were still in the care of commercial archaeology units. I think recording these collections well and truly set me on the path to becoming a finds specialist, because I sent the archaeology companies each a report on their assemblages. This was a good learning experience, as I had never written an artefact report before and didn’t know anyone that could guide me. I had read plenty of finds reports by that stage, both published and commercial grey literature reports, so I at least had an idea of what I was aiming for, but no real way of knowing whether what I was writing was correct.

Iron Age glass bead (LON-041951) © Museum of London (CC BY-SA)

Freddie had a similar path in that he completed a PhD, but his was on Palaeolithic hand-axes. His study involved understanding knapping strategies through deduction from studying the flake scars on hand-axes and the flakes (‘debitage’) removed during the knapping process. Through reading for his own research and teaching practical sessions to undergraduates he gained a broad lithic technology background covering the changes in tool types and forms throughout prehistory. Freddie got his first contracts to write lithic reports for commercial archaeology companies after I recommended him. Lithic identification and report writing is fairly standardised and he taught it in the practical sessions, so he already had a good idea of how to do this.

Replica hand-axe © Frederick Foulds

When I had finished my PhD, I sort of already identified as an artefact specialist. I had studied artefacts after all. But that didn’t mean anyone else knew who I was, which meant that I probably wasn’t going to get any work as a freelancer. To be honest, although I had a good idea of how to go about doing the identification work through research, I didn’t really know how to write it up.

The difficulty is that there is no clear route to becoming an artefact specialist and there is very little guidance on doing this.

In the end, I made the decision to work in a commercial archaeology company. I successfully got a role as a Post-Excavation supervisor and the company was in the middle of a huge infrastructure project. I wasn’t actually hired to write reports on finds at this point, but I did supervise the team that did all the finds processing as it came off site. This hugely benefitted me, because I was able to see everything from ceramics to iron, and all the fancy exciting stuff (check out the first two monographs available here and here). I also had the opportunity to read the reports that the external specialists were writing about those artefacts. Eventually I started to pick up writing the occasional report, while also assisting more and more with project management until ‘Small finds specialist’ became part of my job title in the company (I even had business cards!).

One of the issues that I have really struggled with is the lack of information and guidance on doing finds work (specifically meaning writing reports that meet the needs to commercial archaeology clients to write their assessment and analysis reports). There is also very little in the way of training opportunities (although the Roman Finds Group have been working to change this). Many finds reports are full of technical terms and jargon that makes the whole field somewhat esoteric.

I do feel a bit justified in my struggle because the Cattermole report (2017) suggested that there can be a huge amount of variability in reporting standards anyways.

In retrospect, there are opportunities out there for people to learn about artefacts, or even to become an artefact specialist. Yes, a university degree (or degrees) is often the starting point, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. What you need is a curious mind and some determination. It requires an awful lot of reading, studying illustrations and visiting museums (or even studying collections if you can), making contacts with other researchers and specialists in the field. The benefit of the academic route is access to libraries because the books are often expensive and/or difficult to get hold of, as well as the benefits of being a part of a research community. However, there are often volunteer options with local museums or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which may allow you to develop an interest in artefacts and curators might be able to help suggest further reading material.

Since there is no formal route to becoming a finds specialist, or even a way to know whether you are a full-fledged specialist, I have put together a resources page on this website that I hope will help others learn where to start. Currently, there are only a couple of documents, which I hope will be helpful, but I do want to continue to develop this. Please comment or email us if you have any suggestions for content in the resources you would like to see. 

I am also happy to answer questions about learning to become an artefact specialist and provide advice. I am listed on the Mentoring Womxn in Archaeology website as a mentor, if you think that would benefit you.

Welcome (again!)

After much deliberation I have decided to resurrect my blog. I have moved all of my previous blog posts from prehistoricglass.wordpress.com (which will be shut down) to this website to get us going. The previous posts were on Iron Age glass beads from Britain, but rest assured I will be writing about other archaeological topics as well!

So you found a glass bead…

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. 

Appendix A

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.

Continue reading “So you found a glass bead…”

Dress and Identity front cover art

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…9781784915261

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.

Queen’s Barrow necklace in the Yorkshire Museum (YORYM : 1948.911.1-18, YORYM : 1948.912.1-14, YORYM : 1948.914.1-4, YORYM : 1948.917.1-18) . CC BY-SA 4.0

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’s finally done!

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.9781784915261

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.