It can be bewilderingly difficult to describe a simple thing. At least, that’s my experience now that I’m back in Copenhagen examining Viking Age beads. At present, I’m studying beads from an important cemetery at Bækkegård on the Danish island of Bornholm. A government administrator by the name of Emil Vedel excavated most of the cemetery in 1876, blitzing through 156 graves in a mere 13 days. This means that records are minimal and the handling of some artifacts was haphazard.
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.
Nevertheless, Vedel’s initial 156 graves plus an additional 12 that were found and excavated thereafter make Bækkegård the site of nearly half of all Iron and Viking Age graves found on Bornholm. And although other large cemeteries have been found in southern Scandinavia, including the massive grave field at Lindholm Høje on the Danish mainland, Bækkegård remains a site of great interest. The people who buried there preferred inhumation to cremation burial, which means that the artifacts these people were buried with remained largely intact, whereas those in a cremation cemetery like Lindholm Høje have mostly been burnt or broken beyond recognition. So while Bækkegård’s beads might not be attributable to any particular graves, they remain valuable as the one of the largest groups of necklace beads that can be attributed to a single site in Viking Age Scandinavia.
And so, whereas earlier studies of Bækkegård and Bornholm have relied on Vedel’s simple listing of colors to deduce how necklace styles changed over time, I am one of the first researchers to examine the individual beads. They seem to be strung still on the original threads used back in the 1870s, and each bears a tiny tag with the catalog number written in a black ink that faded long ago.
At this point, I don’t know what’s important, so I’m trying to take as many discrete measurements as possible for future analysis. I’ve got a data set of 261 monochrome beads thus far, representing styles that were used between 600 and 900 AD. For each bead, I currently have 44 columns of data. Most of this is as simple as I can make it, including date and time of analysis, museum and catalog number, provenance location, material, method of production, notes on condition or damage, shape (profile and cross-section), basic dimensions of the bead and its perforation, and the colors reflected and transmitted by the glass (i.e. sitting on a white surface versus having light shine through it). I also have a few columns where I can write notes about observations that my current data scheme doesn’t quite capture, such as irregularities in condition, shape, or color. All told, it takes me about 2-3 minutes to catalog each bead, plus time for photos.
Next week, I start tackling the polychrome and mosaic beads. To be honest, I’m daunted by the prospect. There’s so much variety and innovation during the Viking Age that I’m not quite sure how to capture it all in a meaningful way. I’ve consulted as many catalogues for other bead classification systems as I can find, and they’re all broadly divergent. This has been inspirational, since it allows me to pick the best pieces from each one. But it’s also discouraging, since it’s a clear reminder that even basic data collection is never unbiased, and the choices that I make about data collection now will determine the quality of my dataset for future analysis and interpretation.