It was in the early 800s, and vikings raiders were sweeping across Northern Europe as western kingdoms collapsed into civil war. But by the shores of southern Sweden near the mouth of the Helge Å, one family prospered. Their home was simple—a shallow pit measuring 3×3 meters (10×10 feet) with a house pitched over it like a tent. A loom stood in one corner and a hearth in another. They feasted on fish, made pots for their leftovers, spun wool, wove cloth, carved amber, casted bronze, and traded for beads of glass.
Admittedly, their lives haven’t attracted much attention. They left more trash than some of their neighbors, but less than others—if that’s any measure of wealth or importance. But when I saw the beads they let fall to their floor, I was stunned. For here amid the humble dwellings of Åhus, a handful of drawn and segmented glass beads had been abandoned among a family’s fishbones and broken pots.
These beads are admittedly small, but they could be precious. No one in Northern Europe could make such things, although some were beginning to try. A few families of glassworkers, it seems, shuttled back and forth between this small community of Åhus and a similar settlement on Denmark’s North Sea coast. They had little to work with, perhaps just a handful of glass pieces pilfered from old Roman mosaics, but they were learning to melt these bits of glass, wrap them around iron mandrils, and work them into beads both simple and advanced.
The beads from this house at Åhus were made differently. If glass can be wound at a temperature of about 700° C (1300° F), the glass for these beads must have been heated to somewhere around 1000° C (1800° F). A small air bubble was blown into this liquified glass, which was then stretched into a long hollow tube. For the green bead in the back (now turned white from reactions with the soil), this was the final step. Once it had cooled, the tube was cut into small cylinders like the one we see here. The blue beads went one step further. They were rolled on a surface with regular ridges, giving the beads the appearance that they were made in several segments, as if they were several small beads stuck together. The narrow waists were convenient breaking points, and similar beads typically show up with anywhere between one and five segments. Sometimes these fractures got messy, like the blue double bead on the back left.
The other beads, though much deteriorated, show evidence of yet another step. At some point in the production process, a fine metallic dust was added to make them shine like silver or gold. Over the long term, this has caused weaknesses in the glass, and many of these silver- or gold-foiled beads have started to peel like onions. The gold bead on the bottom left has lost some of its surface glass, and just above it is a piece of surface glass that came from a silver-foil bead, although the core of the bead itself is missing.
But here’s a close up of two beads that staggered me. The two-segment bead in the middle is what right looks like. The beads on either side, however, are missing their holes. There’s no way to string these beads into a necklace, or even to use them as beads. The closest furnaces capable of making these these beads were in the glass workshops of Syria and Iran. These beads then went through Constantinople and up the Danube to get to the Baltic. Or they went the longer way round via Marseilles, up the Rhône, and down the Rhine, before hitting the North Sea and rounding the tip of Jutland. Either journey is impressive, but I’m more impressed that nowhere along the way did anyone stop to check their cargo and discard these beads as worthless.
There’s many possible explanations for this. For now I’ll withhold my conjectures. But whether early medieval merchants never paused to take stock of their wares, or whether they didn’t see these hole-less beads as worthless, either case provides much food for thought about how medieval people moved and valued their goods. And this simple family from Åhus, whose stories have been compressed into a mere 9.5 m2 (100 ft2), somehow had not only the economic reach to participate in exchange networks stretching all the way to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They also shared in an interregional set of economic values that made beads like these worth collecting—in such great numbers that some even fell unheeded to the floor and were ground underfoot.