Counting Beads from Viking Age Bornholm

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 attributed to Burial 66 at the Bækkegård cemetery on Bornholm. Other items in the grave allow us to date the burial to 750-775, or right at the cusp of the Viking Age. But to the original excavators, all the beads looked much the same and got mixed together by color. So although we know that Burial 66 received 20 blue beads in her grave, we can’t be sure that these are the same ones. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

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.

Vedel’s catalog of beads at Bækkegård from his invaluable Nyere undersøgelser angaaende Jernalderen paa Bornholm (1878). His categories of beads include mosaic, painted, varied, blue glass, green glass, other glass, yellow clay, and red clay. It’s not certain what Vedel thought the difference was between “painted” and “varied” glass, nor what exactly belonged to his “other” category. His “clay” beads are now known to be opacified glass. (Emil Vedel, Nyere undersøgelser angaaende Jernalderen paa Bornholm, 1878.)

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.

Beads attributed to Burial 103 at the Bækkegård cemetery on Bornholm. Vedel recorded that yellow “clay” (actually glass) was the predominant material used for this burial’s necklace beads. Although these might not be the exact same beads that Vedel actually excavated, we know from the larger picture of cemeteries on Bornholm that yellow beads went out of style around 600, so I can safely exclude this necklace from my study while minimizing the number of Viking Age beads that I potentially miss. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

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.

Beads attributed to Burial 109 at the Bækkegård cemetery on Bornholm. This mix of colors is appropriate for the period around 630-650, but some of the beads mixed into this reconstruction almost certainly date to the Viking Age. Although the blue beads from Bækkegård appear in many diverse styles, the light that shines through them usually appears in one of only three shades. With further research, I may be able to associate these colors with particular glass production centers in the Eastern Mediterranean, whereas the diverse styles might be attributed to more local bead makers working within Scandinavia itself. The red bead at the right doesn’t have bubbles like the blue beads next to it, revealing that this is a bead was made of amber rather than glass. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

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.

Mosaic and polychrome beads from the Iron Age and Viking Age cemetery at Bækkegård on Bornholm. The beads from Bækkegård comprise a beautiful but dizzying array of styles and techniques—the hard part for a researcher is figuring out how to record all these details. What details are important? And how do I record them discretely so that they can be correlated across a large data set taken from beads across Scandinavia? (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

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.



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