Viking Bead from Swandro

Updated: Dec 24, 2018

This lovely little blue glass bead came from the Viking levels at Swandro. It's tiny, but luckily we have some very sharp-eyed diggers:

Blue glass Viking bead from the dig at Swandro, Orkney

Glass beads are found in small quantities in Viking settlement sites in Orkney such as Quoygrew, Westray and at the Brough of Birsay in the Mainland. They are only usually found in any numbers in burial contexts, and the most relevant for example for Swandro is the Viking cemetery at Westness, which is literally the next headland around the coast from Swandro. This was famously discovered in 1963 by a farmer burying a dead cow – as luck would have it he buried his cow directly over a richly furnished Viking grave which included the Westness brooch, together with a rather fine necklace, with a mixture of glass and stone beads, both now in the National Museum Scotland.

One of the best collections Viking/Norse beads is from a cist at Moan in Harray, which was ploughed up in July 1886. The finds subsequently found their way into the Cursiter collection and are now in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. There are 64 beads, a mixture of amber and glass, and it's possible that they were accompanying a cremation, an unusual (but not unknown) burial rite for the period.

The Moan beads by kind permission & © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018.
The Moan beads by kind permission & © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018.

James Cursiter was a keen collector and amassed an extensive archaeological collection from all periods and should still be in Orkney – Cursiter offered it to the Kirkwall Borough Council with a view to forming a museum but it was turned down. Thankfully instead of it being broken up and sold it was accepted by the Hunterian – Orkney's loss is Glasgow's gain! There's quite a range of different styles of beads in the assemblage from Moan, and they are quite a bit nicer than the Westness examples but not so well-known, presumably because they were found in the late 19th century. Lucky they were saved at all really, Cursiter notes that the farmer and his children spent a lot of time scrabbling around in the plough soil collecting them all up.

Herringbone pattern bead from Moan © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018.
Herringbone pattern bead from Moan © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018.

This herringbone pattern beads is beautiful, but the most amazing example from Moan is this weirdly twisted one - I have no idea how this was made but you've got to hand it to the maker, they really knew what they were doing:

Twisted blue and white bead from Moan
Twisted blue and white bead from Moan © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2018.

If you want to know more about Viking glass beads then have a look at Megan Hickey's MA thesis, which is freely available online : Perler fra vikingtiden (Beads of the Viking-Age). A study of the social and economic patterns in the appearance of beads from Viking-Age sites in Britain

Megan's work features the Moan beads, which make up a large proportion of the blue glass Viking beads from Britain. Now of course added to by our new example of a blue bead from Swandro.

To finish we just want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who's made a donation so far to our excavation fund appeal - all contributions gratefully received!

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