A selection of Anglo-Saxon beads from Hadleigh Road cemetery, Ipswich, UK.
Lady Elinor Strangewayes, OM. Shire of Mountain Freehold.
Materials: Glass beads, wire.
Date: 2nd – 7th century AD. One grave in the cemetery contained a Roman coin of Marcus Aurelius dating to 161 AD. The majority of these beads date between the 5th and 7th centuries.
The cemetery in which these beads were found was excavated in 1906-07.1 Unfortunately, the excavation was fairly haphazard (the leader of the expedition, Nina Layard, mentions that a large group of unemployed locals were set loose in one part of the field with shovels and told to find “relics” of interest) and so much of the beads’ provenance and context is missing. This strand is not especially accurate because it was assembled to 20th century aesthetics. Dr. Layard further notes that the beads’ original position on the strands was not recorded, that the artist chose to assemble the strands in such a way as to feature every bead pattern found, and that many amber beads were not included in the reconstruction. Original Anglo-Saxon necklaces are not symmetrical with one large center piece and bilateral symmetry up the strand. They tend to be more randomly strung, sometimes with one or two beads hung like charms from loops of wire.
I chose to recreate the longest of the strands presented by the Layard expedition artist because it is a good sample of a variety of bead patterns. My beads were made out of modern Effetre glass on a propane-fueled HotHead torch. In period, these would have been made over charcoal or wood fired beehive-shaped furnaces powered with bellows. I purchase my glass in rods produced in Italy. The beadmakers of the early Middle Ages also used a lot of Italian (Roman) origin glass, which was frequently of superior quality to locally produced material. When the Roman legions withdrew, European glassmakers had had to make do with the components on hand. One important ingredient in early glass was potash made from burnt Mediterranean seaweed. Once that was no longer available, the northern glasshouses began using potash made from burnt ferns which was significantly less pure.2 Anglo-Saxon and Norse beads are frequently unstable and prone to deterioration over time as the glass breaks down. That can be seen clearly in some of the original beads where the colored waves proved softer than the original glass and decomposed out.
The majority of these bead patterns have been documented by bead scholars Birte Brugmann, Johan Callmer, and Margaret Guido in their works on Anglo-Saxon and Continental bead trade.3 The original recreated necklace had 4 amber beads and one of rock crystal or rose quartz, which I have recreated with glass. Clear or amber-colored glass beads are not unknown in the historical record. Red beads with white or yellow crossed waves are Guido classification 8xiv. The pattern was produced in multiple glasshouses in mainland Europe and came into England via Kent and the Thames estuary in the 6th and 7th centuries.4 White beads with blue waves were popular in the Rhineland, Netherlands, and northern France circa 550 – 650AD.5 Margaret Guido suggests that they were a bead style of limited popularity. In her classification tables, Guido labels the type 3iiia A glasshouse near Leiden in the Netherlands is known to have produced beads like this. In England, they are most often found in the southern counties though some have been discovered as far north as Yorkshire. White beads with red lines may represent a local variation on 3iiia possibly produced in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Of the large beads in the center, the white beads with red lines or blue lines are simply variants of the patterns discussed above. The white beads with crossed blue lines and red dots was popular in the Rhineland, northern France, and the Netherlands. The style came from glassworks near Leiden around 600AD. Many were imported into England, concentrated in the southern counties and as far north as Yorkshire. Margaret Guido calls this style type 3iiic.6 Other contemporary examples I’ve seen include a bead in a necklace found at Gotland and currently at the Swedish Historical Museum (artifact #454255. SHM 4689); also a 6th century Frankish necklace at the Metropolitan Museum, NY, accession number 17.193.45. The white beads with blue dots are uncommon, which is surprising given the simplicity of their pattern. A few have been found in Germany, possibly of Frankish origin. Margaret Guido’s opinion is that they are rare enough to make it difficult for an accurate date, but her theory is that they are of Rhineland origin and were imported into England between 500 and 650 AD.7 The large white beads with double crossed blue lines, a center blue line, and red dots on the intersections are new to me. The challenge in going with artistic representations versus primary sources is the uncertainty of the accuracy of the drawings. I have never seen this exact pattern before, but it doesn’t look jarringly out of place in an Anglo-Saxon context. They might be a variation on Guido type 3iiic (white beads with crossed blue lines and red dots), but I cannot find any other examples. The large bead in the center is of rose-colored Effetre glass, but the original was probably rock crystal or rose quartz.
My biggest challenge in this project was deliberately lowering the quality of my stringer work.8 The lines on the original beads are erratic and imprecise. Thanks to modern flame control technology and thousands of hours at the torch, my beads can be pretty precise replicas of each other. I had to carefully choose to make the stringer sloppy to capture the look of the originals. The other challenge was the size of the beads. It’s hard to tell the exact size of the originals since there was no scale on the drawings. I like to work on a fairly small scale, and some of these beads appear to be nutmeg-sized. I strung the beads on fine wire. In period wire or linen thread would have been appropriate. No trace of the original stringing medium was found in any of the graves excavated.
Overall, I had fun with this project. It’s the first time I’ve set out to copy a specific strand, and I think it came out pretty well.
1Layard, N.F. 1909. “Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Hadleigh Road, Ipswich,” Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Volume 13, pt 1, 1-20.
2Kidd, Kenneth E. 1979. Glass Bead-Making from the Middle Aegs to the Early 19th Century. Parks Canada: Ottawa, ON.
3Brugmann, Birte. Glass Beads from Early Anglo-Saxon Graves: A Study of the Provenance and Chronology of Glass Beads from Early Anglo-Saxon Graves, Based on Visual Examination. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004; Callmer, Johan. 1977. Trade Beads and Bead Trade in Scandinavia ca. 800 – 1000 AD. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia 4th Series, No. 11. Lund: Munksgaard; Guido, Margaret. 1978. The Glass Beads of the Prehistoric and Roman Periods in Britain and Ireland, Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq. Lond. 35, (London).
4Guido, Margaret. 1999. The Glass Beads of Anglo-Saxon England c. AD 400-700 (ed. Welch, M.) Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq. Lond. 56, (London). Page 63.
5Guido 1999: 32
7Guido 1999: 34
8Stringer is fine strands of glass used to make decorations or patterns on the beads in the flame.