Broken bead or pendant roughout of jet-like material from Swandro

Updated: May 24, 2018

We have just received a report, kindly prepared for us by Dr Alison Sheridan of National Museums Scotland (NMS), on a very interesting find from our 2015 season, a broken roughout of a bead or pendant made from a jet-like material. It was found in the midden deposits near to the entrance of the chamber tomb in an area that lies beneath the Iron Age levels but is otherwise as yet undated, hence it could be either Neolithic or possibly Chalcolithic or Bronze Age, since there is evidence for post-Neolithic activity at a number of Neolithic chamber tombs in Orkney.


This little roughout must have broken in the course of manufacture, as the hole was being drilled first and was nearly completed when the piece split. While it might not have taken more than a few minutes to drill the hole, nevertheless this would have been a frustrating waste of time, and of a piece of unusual material.

Since it broke at an early stage of manufacture there's no definite way of telling what the final design would have been. Dr Sheridan considers that it is most likely to have been intended as either a pendant or a bead; it’s even possible that the maker didn’t intend to modify the shape of the raw material any further than by simply perforating it.


The bead/pendant was broken across the hole during manufacture

What we can say for sure is that it was definitely not a roughout for an Early Bronze Age necklace spacer plate. Spacer plate necklaces are things of beauty. It's a shame we've not (yet!) got a complete example from Orkney, but in Orkney Museum there is a single spacer plate from one such necklace that was found in Tankerness Moss


If the Swandro roughout is of Neolithic date, then what is of especial interest is that one bead from Skara Brae is of the same raw material. Other beads of black materials are known from Neolithic Orkney: one of the Skara Brae beads had been made of bone painted black, while at Stonehall there is a black bead that’s probably of carbon-rich siltstone or mudstone. That bead was published by Dr Sheridan in Colin Richards’ The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney' in 2016.


While the raw material for the Swandro object looks very similar to jet, we can say –thanks to the application of several high-tech analytical methods including Particle Emission X-ray spectroscopy (PIXE) – that it is not jet. The item was analysed by Dr Lore Troalen (NMS) and by Julia Novion Ducassou at National Museums Scotland and at the Louvre Museum laboratory in Paris, as part of Dr Sheridan’s long-term and ongoing research project into the use of jet and jet-like materials in British prehistory. The analysis showed that the raw material is not cannel coal or shale, nor is it albertite – a bituminous material that outcrops near Dingwall, and which had been used to make the Early Bronze Age V-perforated button found at Isbister. Similarly, it was shown not to be cloustonite, a mineral discovered by renowned Orcadian mineralogist Professor Matthew Heddle in the 19th century and named after the Orkney minister and antiquarian the Rev. Charles Clouston. It is suspected that the source of this mystery material is probably to be found in Orkney…but where? Further research is necessary.


A fascination with black and dark-coloured jewellery and dress accessories can be seen among Orkney’s Early Bronze Age finds (dating to between 2200 BC and 1700 BC). It was during this period that the exploitation of jet from Whitby in Yorkshire increased dramatically, with specialists producing fine jewellery for wealthy and important people far and wide. The products included spacer plate necklaces – of which the Tankerness Moss plate had been a component. That spacer plate was analysed by Dr Mary Davis for Dr Sheridan’s project in NMS around 20 years ago and was found to be of Whitby jet, while Mary’s analysis of the Isbister button was able to show that it must have been imported from the north-east Scottish mainland, being made of albertite. (A belt ring found with the button at Isbister was found by Mary to be of cannel coal, possibly from the Sutherland coast.) And on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is a fine disc-bead necklace of small shale beads, with a fastener made of pumice, that had been found in the backfilled entrance passageway at Taversoe Tuick, a Neolithic chamber tomb on Rousay with later re-use during the Bronze Age.


The finest Orkney example of an Early Bronze Age disc-bead necklace (of which Scotland has around 30 examples, mostly dating to between 2200 – 1700 BC, as Dr Sheridan’s research has shown) came from 18th century excavations in the Links of Skaill (near Skara Brae) by the noted naturalist Joseph Banks, Orkney's Rev. George Low and Robert Graham, the Laird of Skaill. There was an extensive Bronze Age barrow cemetery here, of which most of the barrows were subsequently destroyed without record during agricultural improvements. One of the excavated cist graves from the Links contained both unburnt and burnt human bone, and among the cremated bone were around 200 jet-like disc beads of a jet-like material, the only surviving illustration of which comes from George Low. It appears to be a typical Early Bronze Age disc bead:


Illustration by George Low of a barrow, bone & bead from the Links of Skaill

Low also, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, set some of the beads on fire:


'I have seen several of the beads, they are black, and seem to be made of a sort of cannel coal, they burn well, emitting a strong white flame, and a white cinder remains'.

Unfortunately identification by burning is inconclusive, not to mention destructive, and the rest of the beads have been lost, although I do cherish the hope that the current Laird of Skaill might one day find them in a box in the back of a cupboard!


We would like to express our thanks to Dr Alison Sheridan and you can read Dr Sheridan's report by going to the more information section of our website. (Please note this dig diary has been written by Team Swandro - please only reference/quote Dr Sheridan's report, which can be downloaded on our more info page, not this dig diary entry!)


We cannot yet date this interesting find as we do not have radiocarbon dates from any of the associated archaeological layers: all we can say for certain is that it is pre-Iron Age, but probably much earlier. Radiocarbon dates cost around £375 including the VAT - any donations towards the cost of dating our bead/pendant most gratefully received - thank you for your support!

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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

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