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!
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.