Beads from the period were primarily made of glass, though other materials (including crystal, carnelian, amber, jet, bone, and antler are known). Beads were the province of the rich - they were relatively rare and costly items in the tenth century. In the present day they are plentiful, (relatively) cheap and can easily make up a large visual appealing necklace.
They are also the province of women - long strings of beads almost always belong to women and while there is evidence for men wearing up to four beads, longer strings are almost entirely absent from male graves.
In the western Viking world strings with over 30 beads on them are considered to be very rich, the most beads found in any one grave in the British Isles is that from Peel, Isle of Man, where 73 beads were found.
Beads and male costume
Beads are very rare in viking male inhumations, where present finds of more than three beads in a male grave are exceptionally rare. This is quite a long-standing tradition during the period and can be seen continuously from the Late Iron Age, through the Migration period and into the Viking Age.
Given that single beads are occasional finds in male graves, it is possible that they fulfilled a role other than as a necklace. One of the few surviving Viking period tunics (from Skjoldehamn, Norway) uses a bead as a neck closure so it is possible that the finds of individual or “odd” beads were used in a similar manner.
The overwhelming majority of found beads are glass. While other materials such as amber or jet may have been used. they are rare finds.
Of the 1100 graves of Bjorko, Birka 87.91% of graves do not have beads - with one exception (grave no. 958) all of the graves with more than four beads belong to women - and of the graves with four or less beads in that have been sexed the majority belong to women. A male grave at Repton has been found with two glass beads (one white, one blue) either side of a small Thors Hammer. Glass beads are quite rare in settlement sites - from the site at Skaill there were two beads found - one a millefiori bead made with considerable skill - the other an unstratified bead of blue glass. Blue translucent beads are very popular as is yellow opaque beads other colours found have been white, red, green, and orange. Beads come in many shapes and styles such as the millefiori types, the plain coloured melon shaped beads (longitudinal lines form a bead with apparent segments). Beads come in many sizes from 3mm to 30mm in diameter. Beads are found in segmented forms, ie. still joined together to form a bead of two, three or four nodules.
Techniques to make glass beads look like silver and gold are also employed. In Kneep glass beads have been dipped in silver to make silver beads and the most complicated technique is also used to make ‘gold’ beads - this is done by dipping glass in silver then back into a glass - creating an optical illusion of gold. Several beads using this technique can bee seen at Kneep where there were 8 ‘silver’ beads and 12 'gold’ ones.
In Finland there is an unusually high concentration of glass beads - it may be connected to the fact that Finland is closest to the trade routes from India. In Finland there are even small girls graves with strings of glass beads - Grave 118 from Luistari had a string with 65 glass bead on it, she also possessed a brooch, spiral arm rings, finger and toe rings and two copper alloy bells - the child was 3 - 4 years of age.
Of the graves at Birka with amber beads - the majority have only one bead - 20 out of the 41 graves with beads. Only 3.73% of the graves at Birka have amber beads within in them - these beads are either round or sub-pyramidal in shape. More beads of this shape can be seen in the finds from York. The method of manufacture is that a bead is roughly carved, the hole is then drilled in it and when successful hole is drilled the bead is then given its final shape and polish. Beads with finished holes are always further trimmed and polished - raw amber is only found in connection with workshops, and was not used as decoration. Many discarded chips of amber are to be found at the Lloyds Bank site in York where there is also evidence for the production of amber beads on a lathe. The amber pieces from York are of such a size that they were probably imported from the Baltic. On most strings of beads there is never more than one or two amber beads. In the grave at Peel two large (30mm) amber beads were found in the vicinity of the waist along with an ammonite with a hole through the middle. Amber was also used for other objects, beads may not have been the main purpose. It is also worth noting that amber does not survive well in a funeral fire.
Carnelian and Rock crystal
Rock crystal and Carnelian beads are often found together, they are either facet cut stones, or polished spheres - never unworked. They are also found in mixed necklaces with other types of beads. A rather spectacular necklace can be seen from the boat grave cemetery at Tuna, Sweden which along with the crystal and carnelian there are twelve pendant rings each with a further bead upon them. Another rock crystal necklace can be seen in Jaroslavl, Russia where 7 faceted crystal bead were found with 6 glass beads - although in Russia some of the grave goods - such as oval and round brooches, coupled with the fact she was buried seated this woman is seen to be of Scandinavian origin. Another necklace with crystal can be found in Iceland: only two of a 52 bead necklace are crystal - one bead of amber and 49 of glass. The round pieces of crystal set in silver mounts come from Gotland - where they were probably made - and are dated to the eleventh or twelfth centuries. A large proportion of the Carnelian beads have been found in Birka, this could be an indication of trade connections not accessible to others, it could hint to the value of these beads, and finally this may be a local culture - as with other finds from Birka.
Jet beads have been found in the amber/jet workshop of Fishamble Street, Dublin. To the jewellery who worked in this workshop, jet and amber seemed to be interchangeable - all the same things were made: beads, fingerings, bracelets. Jet beads are evidenced on the necklace from Peel.
A number of metal beads have been found, made from either bronze, silver or gold. Some are found as single beads, but a large proportion of the silver and gold beads found belong to complete necklace sets, indicating that this is for the very wealthy only. Most of the Silver and all of the gold beads were found in Gotland - raising the question if this is a local custom rather than a wide spread phenomena. The bronze beads are simple, while most of the silver beads and all of the gold beads are filigree.
Strings of beads were originally threaded onto linen, animal gut or tendon or something similar. Over time, the thread will inevitably wear and break (contributing to stray finds of beads in the archaeological record).
Re-enactors should therefore try to find the strongest thread or filament available. Multi-strand fishing filament is one of the best and can pass for linen. The ends of the thread should be hidden if they look inauthentic.
Whatever thread you are using, one of the most important tips is to knot the thread between every bead - when it does break, you won't lose them all onto the floor.
Credits: with thanks to Caroline Buckley and Dave Constantine.