Beads with a story

Folks often ask me if I have a favorite bead pattern, or a least favorite. The least favorite is easy: I don’t like making segmented beads or melon beads (though I like the finished products). Those beads are tedious to make.

My favorite beads are those with stories behind them. One of them, a basic black bead with a simple white wave pattern, isn’t much to look at. It’s a pretty generic bead design that dates between 1AD and 850AD, and has been found all over Europe and the British Isles. DSC02992 They were originally made at glassworking sites in present-day Germany. What makes them interesting is that the beads show up at the campsites and forts of Roman legions in England… more specifically, in the context of legions that were known to recruit Germanic tribesmen. These simple beads were items from home being carried by Germanic people serving all over the Roman Empire. It’s romantic of me, I know, but I like to imagine some soldier sitting by the campfire in some Godforsaken outpost and dreaming of the day his time is up and he can go home.

The other bead carries a tale of crafty ingenuity. It’s an Anglo-Saxon style dating between 500AD and 1100AD. At first glance, they look like red beads decorated with twists of yellow and black, and that’s what the original artists wanted you to think they were. But they aren’t. Making twisted stringer is a technically complex task that requires good heat control and a steady hand. DSC02997 The Anglo-Saxon glass houses didn’t have quite the same level of skill as their Continental counterparts, so they took a shortcut. These are actually yellow beads that have had a black zig-zag applied, the black lines were dragged slightly to make a chevron shape, and then a thick red band was applied in three places. The effect looks the same as the Continental originals… until you look closely at the hole ends. A little bit of yellow or black usually peeks out there and gives the game away.

I love the cleverness of that idea – some Anglo-Saxon glassworker rolled a bead around in his or her hands until a quick and easy way to copy it came to mind, and then they went into business producing high quality knock-offs of the imported beads. Economics in action! I’m also fond of this style’s name, which bead historian Birte Brugmann calls “imitation traffic light” due to its stacked bands of color. (The Continental originals are called “traffic light” beads.) And for you trivia fans, an imitation traffic light bead was found in the famous dig at Sutton Hoo.

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