Consuming Beads: A Tentative Chronology of the Viking Age

This week I finish the second stage of my research, so I’d like to take a few moments to sum up what I’ve seen. In previous posts, I’ve documented highlights from my visits to Copenhagen, Lund (SE), Bornholm, and Schleswig (DE). Since then, I’ve been on whirlwind trips to Ribe, Aalborg, Odense, and Langeland. At this point, I’ve completed a survey of over 6,000 beads from the Viking-Age, a large number of which have yet to be published.

Has it all been worth it? I’ll let you decide. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll sketch a quick chronology of early Viking Age bead consumption as it now appears to me. I’ve seen pre-Viking Age beads from ca. 700 at central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, as well as from the trading camps of Ribe and Åhus. And I’ve seen beads from the full flush of the Viking Age from the burgeoning emporia of Hedeby and Sebbersund, as well as from the small cemeteries of the Danish archipelago. These early and late beads look dramatically different, and not only do they come from different places, they also come from different kinds of places. Between 700 and 900, a whole new set of consumers gained access to necklace beads, and they were using them in a whole new set of ways.

Phase 1 (660-700). Scandinavian society revolved around central places during the early middle ages, otherwise referred to as the Germanic Iron Age. Elites who built their power at these sites distinguished themselves by showcasing exotic objects made from materials like glass and gold, which could not be obtained locally. They left glass and gold as votive deposits at places like Sorte Muld and Uppåkra, and they buried them with them when they died. Their societies stabilized with the rest of Europe as northern climates recovered from the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, while the enduring strength of Eastern Mediterranean economies meant that access to exotic goods remained consistent throughout this period. This consistency contributed to a conservative sense of fashion, with styles of clothing and jewelry changing only slowly. Beads tended to be simple but made from high-quality glass. Favorite colors like blue, green, and white would have complemented the prominent blues of women’s dresses.

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Beads attributed to Bækkegård Grave 109, ca. 630–660. Similar necklaces featuring white, blue, and green glass beads were common from 630–800. This necklace also included decorated beads, but these were all mixed up during shipment and can no longer be assigned to particular graves.  (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 2 (700-760). Western Europeans built on the improving climate with agricultural reforms and commercial enterprise. North Sea merchants carried this prosperity into Scandinavia by partnering with Danish elites to establish a trading camp at Ribe, a sheltered spot where coastal traders could exchange wares with the deep-sea merchants who traveled around Jutland into the Baltic. Soon the camp at Ribe had a companion market at Åhus in Sweden. The old elites must have watched these sites carefully, but craftspeople increasingly worked on their own terms, outside the patronage networks of central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. They engaged in traditional work with local materials like amber and antler, and for the first time Scandinavian craftspeople also gained proficiency with glass. The new markets secured steady access to this exotic good, while aspiring elites were eager to consume the new fashions being made. These beads—typically a translucent blue glass decorated with red, white, and yellow rings—moved out from the fledgling markets and into the most prestigious circles of Scandinavian society.

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Blue beads with decorated with complex lines of red and white, probably made in Ribe or Åhus and buried among elite families on Bornholm, 700–760. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, DK.)

Phase 3 (760-790). This seems to have been a period of retrenchment. The glass in Ribe and Åhus came from major production centers in the Near East, which prospered as the Islamic conquests put an end to the perennial conflicts between Byzantium and Persia. But the caliphate overextended, and in the 750s, it began to break apart. Distant provinces revolted and a major coup rocked the center. This interrupted the supply of new glass to Scandinavia, where glassworking faltered. The ubiquitous blue beads disappeared and were replaced by thin ‘wasp’ beads—a style that maximized length and minimized material. Many of these beads were black with yellow rings, but they appeared in other colors as well. Access to glass was the determining factor, and bead makers weren’t terribly concerned with color. From this perspective, the late 700s were bleak. Ribe’s trade restructured and Åhus may have been abandoned. Craftspeople and merchants dispersed to a looser but more robust network of smaller trading sites. Some of these would later flourish, but in the uncertain years of the late 700s, most remained ramshackle affairs that have left few archaeological traces.

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Wasp bead from Sebbersund, ca. 760–790. One of the earliest artifacts from Sebbersund, which would later develop into a major trading port for traffic taking the Limfjord between the east and west coasts of Jutland. (Aalborg Historiske Museum, Aalborg, DK.)

Phase 4 (790-820). Glass imports renewed during this period, and the loose network of small sites began to consolidate around a few urban nodes. These sites show intensifying relationships with the Near East, no longer mediated through Francia and the Western Mediterranean. Islamic coins were circulating in Scandinavian markets by the 780s, and in the 790s, bead imports spiked. These beads came in a few standard styles made from drawn glass, which couldn’t be replicated in the north. Scandinavian glassworkers could make exquisite beads by heating glass and wrapping it around a mandrel, but they lacked the technology or expertise to blow glass, draw it into tubes, and form it into a desired shape. Bead imports proliferated at Ribe and the revived settlement of Åhus, but they’re curiously rare at elite sites and cemeteries. In part, this is because a large number of the beads lacked perforations, which raises questions about what exactly they were being used for. Overall, it seems that although craftspeople were still occupying traditional places, Scandinavian connections and consumption patterns were beginning to change.

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Drawn beads found in a craftsworking site at Åhus, ca. 790–820. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, SE.)

Phase 5 (820-860). During this period, a new set of settlements left the old ones behind. Elite women stopped losing their beads at the central places of the Germanic Iron Age, which gives them a sense of abandonment. Ribe and Åhus also disappear from the archaeological record—if these communities persevered, they moved to new sites yet to be identified. Meanwhile, a different set of settlements began to take off. Places like Sebbersund and Hedeby had been among the trading posts that popped up in the late 700s, but only in the mid-800s did they became complex and densely populated sites. Their expanding trade included a new style of drawn bead—tiny rings of blue, yellow, white, and black. These beads rarely made it into elite graves, although hundreds were found in the so-called Hedeby harbor purse. This set of beads was found packaged with a handful of coins, suggesting that they might have served a monetary function as well. If so, they add a new dimension to our understanding of this period. Islamic coins were still rare, and most coins from this period came from Western Europe. But the Hedeby harbor purse suggests that Scandinavians were also forging connections east, well before the silver fever began in the 850s.

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A selection of the 600 small drawn beads found in the Hedeby Harbor purse with seven silver coins, ca. 820–860. (Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, DE.)

Phase 6 (860-900). This was another period of extreme disruption in the Islamic world, as short-lived caliphs struggled to control the Turkish slave-soldiers whom they had empowered. Silver imports slowed, as did glass. Meanwhile, Christianity was taking root in Scandinavian towns, and the new Christians quit burying their dead with grave goods. This led to a declining demand for beads in some places, even as a new demand sprang up in the Danish archipelago. A form of Norse paganism was taking shape there, building its mythology around the old cultic site of Gudme. People in the area started burying their dead with grave goods like necklaces, even as their Christian counterparts were giving it up. These cemeteries tend to be modest, suggesting limited material wealth, but several graves contain an extra body—presumably a slave sacrifice. These island burials contrast to the trading towns, which evidence economic distancing from the Islamic world and cultural convergence with the West. The appearance of glass beads in the Danish archipelago conversely suggests that not only did some Scandinavians maintain contact with the Islamic world, but that these Scandinavians also had access to extra human bodies—at the same time that vikings were reaping captives from the west and Islamic elites were seeking a new source of slaves for their harems and armies. This gives much food for thought about the role these island communities played and the potential extent of human trafficking in the Viking Age.

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Stengade Grave BØ, ca. 950-1000. A woman aged 40–50 was buried on the island of Langeland with this set of beads, typical for the late Viking Age. There are some ‘retro’ styles, like the blue and white beads, but the quality of glass is different and they have corroded much more quickly than glass from the early Viking Age. There is also a pair of amber pendants, which are often found in cemeteries, like Stengade, where Thor’s hammers are also found. (Langelands Museum, Rudkøbing, DK.)

I must note that this chronology is only tentative—a working framework as I continue to analyze data and conduct new research. In particular, I am uncertain about the changes of the late 700s and whether this should be seen as a period of retrenchment, at least with regard to long-distance trade. Nevertheless, the glass evidence points to strong connections with the Islamic world beginning around 790 and intensifying in the early 800s. This indicates that these connections existed well before Scandinavians began to import Islamic silver in large quantities. Moreover, the ways in which the glass was being used gives us clues to what Scandinavians were doing to acquire it.

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