I’ve spent the past week at Bornholms Museum (no apostrophe needed). It’s the local museum for the Danish municipality and Baltic island of Bornholm, a stout rock of granite and rolling fields, forests, and sandy beaches. During the early middle ages, travelers and traders often sought refuge along Bornholm’s open shores—they could see what they were getting into before they approached, and they could scatter for safety at the first sign of danger. The island prospered as a result, with what seems to have been a major cult site springing up at Sorte Muld near the island’s east coast. Although archaeologists haven’t identified any particular cemetery with the Sorte Muld community, there were plenty of lavish cemeteries in the surrounding countryside. An enthusiastic Danish administrator discovered many of these cemeteries during his assignment to Bornholm in the 1880s, and more recent metal detecting and archaeological excavations have greatly added to this number.
Although that administrator—a jurist named Emil Vedel—produced publications that still get referenced in scholarly work today, I’m more interested in sites that have been excavated over the last few decades. Vedel lived at a time when he could be cavalier with his discoveries, and some of his finds disappeared as a result. The artifacts that he did hand over to the public trust ended up with the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen. Today, professional archaeologists working for Bornholms Museum oversee the digs, and all but a few artifacts remain on Bornholm. From a scholarly perspective, this means that recent digs are more thoroughly documented, and the finds are carefully collected and curated at the museum’s storage facility in Rønne. And since Bornholm stands somewhat apart from the rest of Denmark and Scandinavia, some of these sites are ripe for studies that will open them up for wider audiences.
This week, I’ve focused especially on two cemeteries that were used during the late Iron Age and into the first generations of the Viking Age: Nørre Sandegård Vest and Snekkebjerg. Nørre Sandegård overlooks the island’s northern shore, while Snekkebjerg is a bit more inland. Nørre Sandegård has been known since the earliest surveys by Vedel, but Snekkebjerg remains relatively unknown—its publicity remains limited to a single display in the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen. In short, these are two sites rich in comparisons and contrasts, and I plan to use their beads to tell the story about how long-distance contacts and local social patterns underwent drastic change at the dawn of the Viking Age—changes that would redirect the European slave trade from the west (down to Marseilles and Rome) to the east (outward to Venice, Constantinople, Baghdad, and Khwarazm).
My work at the museum has centered around assessing research opportunities, getting to know the right people, and testing my own procedures. I’ve also had the opportunity to help (a little) at the ongoing excavations at Nørre Sandegård. More about that later. For now, I’d like to focus on what might be my new favorite bead. I’ve dubbed it the Frankenstein Bead, because it’s a bit of a monster. It’s made from tidbits of things that just don’t seem to go together. But someone in the past put them together, and although this hodgepodge seems out of place amid many other beads I’ve seen—each with its own coherent shape and design laid out upon a single piece of glass—someone thought it had its own sense of unity. The Frankenstein Bead was included as but one bead of many, falling in at bead number 36 of 46 in the necklace buried at A36 at Snekkebjerg.
This bead may not strike the casual observer for anything other than its imperfect design, which is indeed what made it stand out initially. The bead’s inconsistencies stand in stark contrast to the skill that went into its decorative designs, which show that it was made by an experienced hand. The yellow stripes were made by twisting two rods of yellow and blue glass together, then melting them onto a premade blue bead. The wavy line down the center of the left side was similarly made, probably by melting white-red-white together so that a red stripe would appear in the middle, although the red has left only the faintest trace after a thousand years in the soil. The design on the right is less orderly, but it likewise demonstrates the use of an appliqué made from rods of red and white glass fused together. No glass was wasted. All the appliqués were laid so thin and flat that the bead maintained a consistent shape without any bulging where the extra glass was applied. Things get really exciting, however, when the bead is held up to the light.
Although the bead looks like a consistent dark blue when it’s laid on an opaque surface, it allows three distinct shades to shine through when it’s held up to light. This means either that the raw glass had a highly uneven chemical distribution (glass is, after all, a fluid—or at least an amorphous solid). Or it means that the beadmaker used at least three different pieces of blue glass and fused them together, plus the appliqués on top. Either way, this would have been an extremely tricky endeavor. Glasses cool differently, depending on the chemical compounds that they’re made of, so the one or possibly three seams of this bead were all potential breaking points. And yet this bead somehow made it. This bead—this messy hodgepodge of a bead—must certainly have been the work of a maestro, someone for whom fluid mechanics made intuitive sense, despite living in a world that lacked the (now) common-sense assumptions enshrined as Newtonian physics.
I’m not entirely sure what this all means. I’d tentatively date this bead’s necklace to the early 700s, since it shares some commonalities with other necklaces from the period. But the Frankenstein Bead is certainly unique. The constituent pieces are common enough, so perhaps this was a training bead, maybe even the surviving trace of a parent teaching a child the finer points of working with amorphous solids. This kind of work would have been unthinkable in Scandinavia before the 700s, and it helps signal the changes in crafts and trade that helped make way for the urbanization and long-distance exchange that characterized the Viking Age—and everything else that came with it.