Seventh century or seventeenth century?
Identifying glass beads from Scotland
scientific analysis, methodology, trade beads, early modern, glass beads
St Ninian's Isle; Shetland; Morham; East Lothian; Scotland; UK
This paper reconsiders glass beads that have hitherto been regarded as early medieval in date. Although several groups of these beads are known from important early Christian sites – St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland, and Morham, East Lothian – a case is made here for a manufacture date between the 17th and 19th centuries AD on the basis of typological parallels and surface analysis of the glass composition. Several of the groups of beads appear to have been found in graves and their significance in the context of early modern burial practice is explored. Here it is argued that, in the face of the sheer quantity of beads produced in post-medieval Europe, extreme care should be exercised when identifying glass beads, particularly when the objects in question have complex or uncertain archaeological contexts. Although surface analysis of glass composition has limitations, with careful interpretation it can nonetheless provide a quick, inexpensive and non-destructive means of narrowing the range of possible identifications. The type of glass can give a broad indication of date, and in some cases the detection of particular ingredients or quality of materials can indicate a more precise origin.