I also am starting another category for my posts titled Viking Bead Research. I am reading anything I can find on period bead production, but even of more interest to me is the context of the bead finds that we do have. Anyone who has looked at Viking Age costume research for any amount of time comes to understand some of the flaws inherent in this particular field of science. The foremost of which is that textiles quite often rarely survive in the grave, and what does is frequently fragmented. Further, many of the graves that we reference were excavated during a time when textiles were not of interest to the archaeologists. Typically they were not well treated, or merely scraped off the far more interesting (to them) metal weapons or jewelry. Other practices were not as scientific as they are today, which can result in mislabeling of items from graves (meaning that at this point in time we are not be completely sure what items really do belong to what graves in some cases, and this can particularly come into play with older excavation sites like Birka).
In many cases, even solid, decorative items such as beads, were not as well regarded as impressive weapon burials. This is a case made very clear by archaeologist Matthew Delvaux In his blog “Text and Trowel”. After describing how a cemetery in Bornholm, Denmark was excavated at a pace of 156 graves in 13 days, he then states “Beads in particular suffered from Vedel’s treatment. He recorded colors and numbers for each grave but then threw all the beads that he thought were worth keeping into containers for shipment to the National Museum of Denmark. The curators in Copenhagen resorted the monochrome beads into strings for each grave—although it’s unlikely that many of these beads actually came from the graves that they’re now associated with—and then they strung all the mixed polychrome and mosaic beads onto strings of their own .”
Quite simply, this means that the beads we see hanging in some museums, or that are attributed to some graves, were not likely worn like that during the Viking Age. They might not clearly represent something one individual owned. And this also makes me wonder how many cases are there where the large, impressive beads make the displays, while the smaller items were lost to inept scientific practices, causing us to think that it was most common to have a string of large, multicolored beads?
Another thing that we often see out of context in reenactment are strings of beads from hoards. Were these items really all strung together, and worn by one person, in life? Or are those beads an accumulation of wealth just like the varied bits of silver in the same cache. Do these collection of beads in a hoard relate in any way to beads in graves from the nearest settlement?
My plan is to poke through a variety of finds and look at the beads in context of not only the practices of the period, but also comparing that to more recent finds, finds from settlements and workshops (which might have different types of beads than those we sometimes see on display), and to look at the beads in context. Are they from a settlement, hoard or grave? Where were they in the grave (at the neck, laying loose in the grave, contained in a pouch)? Were they found in conjunction with other items of dress such as oval brooches? What do the more recent finds (with better scientific practices) show us?
I hope to share some of my finds, as well as my thoughts, as I wind my way along this trail. Hopefully others will find it as interesting as I do!