Iron Age Post-excavation Swartigill

The significance of the ‘miniscule’ blue beads from Swartigill

Recent post-excavation work, processing soil samples excavated from Swartigill, has revealed several beautiful and tiny pieces of Iron Age jewellery. Not one, not two, but three blue glass beads!

By Martin Carruthers
UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney

Recent post-excavation work, processing soil samples excavated from Swartigill, has revealed several beautiful and tiny pieces of Iron Age jewellery. Not one, not two, but three blue glass beads!

The ‘miniscule’ blue glass beads from Swartigill. (Tom O’Brien)

We have made a rather exciting find (or, rather, three exciting finds), from the routine task of processing environmental samples from the excavations at Swartigill, Caithness. The important finds were recovered during the wet-sieving of soil samples, a process designed to recover charred plant remains, grains and seeds, or scraps of burnt bone, in order to build a picture of the ancient environment.

This is an incredibly informative process in its own right, providing insight into the natural and farmed landscape that the occupants of sites like Swartigill inhabited. At the same time, an added bonus of this process is that we often recover “micro-artefacts”. These are tiny objects, often fragments of artefacts that are too small to reasonably expect to recover during excavation itself.

Travis sorting samples back at the UHI Archaeology Institute.

During one recent bout of sample-processing, Cecily and Travis, who check and sort the samples back at ORCA headquarters in the UHI Archaeology Institute in Orkney, were sorting through the contents of several samples when they discerned some very beautiful and colourful glass beads amongst the organic fragments in the sample.

The beads, of which three were found altogether, are very tiny, measuring around 2 mm across.

They are a beautiful light blue in colour and annular ordisc shaped. Iron Age glass beads are a fairly well-known occurrence on Northern Scottish Iron Age archaeological sites, however, the beads from Swartigill belong to a class of tiny glass beads that have really only come to light in fairly recent excavations. They are known, quite literally, as “miniscule” beads.

The small but growing group of sites where these beads have been found are located in Scotland and Northern England, and it is gratifying to know that the excavation of these sites are all united by one fact related to good archaeological practice: very careful and detailed sampling strategies of their soils and contexts, so that there is a chance to recover tiny, but culturally important, objects.

Recent chemical analyses of glass beads from Scottish Iron Age sites shows the raw material for making the beads was almost always recycled Roman glass from vessels and other objects. Vivid colours of glass like blue and yellow can be chemically traced and studies show they originated from areas as far away as the Syria/Palestine region of the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s quite thought-provoking to contemplate the long treks and sea journeys that these raw materials undertook. How many ancient hands and various places did the glass pass through in order to reach Northern Scotland over 2,000 years ago where it was finally recycled into beautiful beads to be worn on the body or to decorate textiles?

Microscopic analysis reveals gas bubbles from the production of beads, but also something we have been looking into in recent years at the UHI Archaeology Institute – use wear on the surfaces of glass beads. (Martin Carruthers)

Evidence for the actual glass bead-making comes from sites like the recently excavated and published production centre at Culduthel, just south of modern Inverness, and at Culbin Sands near Nairn, Morayshire. Glass bead-making seems to have been limited to this broad area of NE mainland Scotland, but beads were distributed from there to Atlantic Scotland, across the entirety of the Highlands and Islands. These include, we now know, sites like Swartigill, via some mechanism of trade or exchange.

Glass beads in Iron Age Scotland, therefore, possessed complex origins and uses. We might say they had long, detailed biographies and it may well be that these biographies were understood by Iron Age people and recognised as part of the cultural value of the beads.

As objects worn on the body during the Iron Age, miniscule beads are so small that on their own they would have little visible effect and would be difficult to observe. Relatively large numbers of the beads would be required to make them visible enough to take advantage of their brilliant vivid colour, which was presumably very much intended to be seen. It is likely that miniscule beads were actually part of more complex arrays of multiple beaded objects, such as multi-strand necklaces, or perhaps embroidered on to textile garments, hems and plaits as part of clothing and headgear. Maybe they were even threaded on to people’s hair.

The very close proximity of the Swartigill beads to each other in the ground, (all three coming from a small number of adjacent sample areas), as well as their very close physical similarity to each other, means it is quite likely that these beads were originally part of a single composite object of jewellery or an embroidered object.

Evidence for the use of miniscule beads in complex arrays can be found in other areas of Iron Age Britain. A fascinating example of a find that contained lots of these beads comes from Wetwang, in East Yorkshire, where over 100 miniscule blue glass beads were discovered during the excavation of an elaborate burial. The beads in the grave where concentrated around the handle of a beautiful bronze hand-mirror and the excavator suggested that the beads may originally have hung on tassels swinging from the handle of the mirror creating an even more dramatically beautiful object, and impressive impact.

We can imagine that our glass beads from Swartigill acted in a similar, though maybe slightly more modest, fashion to draw attention to the wearer. The overall effect would have been flashes of colour in constant swaying motion, catching the light, sparkling dynamically to attract the eye. And this is probably key to understanding the significance of these micro-beads: they are designed to capture attention, and to communicate messages about those who were lucky enough to possess and wear them.

The beads would certainly enhance the impressive appearance of someone wearing them in highly decorative arrays or combinations, but additional important messages might relate to social status, wealth, and familiarity with the wider-world. The beads may well also have expressed gender differences in, for example, how they were worn, and where upon the body, or through specific colours or bead arrangements.

Beads could also have marked different age-grades within Iron Age society, such as young/old, senior/junior, or other achieved statuses in life such as married/unmarried. Even the different colours used in Iron Age beads might convey messages, so that yellow versus blue, or green, or multi-colour (polychromatic) beads might symbolise different things to Iron Age people.

For example, at a very simple level, yellow could evoke the sun, or the growing barley. Green might represent the grassy sward of pastures, and so on, through the entire range of colours of beads. Blue could signify the sea, or the sky, and might, therefore, generally relate to travel, and far places, indicative of the connected world of the Scottish Atlantic region. The beads would have conveyed a powerful message signalling the wearer’s awareness of that world and its traditions.

Structure A – the souterrain – at Swartigill. (Bobby Friel)

Another characteristic of beads recognised by different cultures around the world, is their resemblance to eyes, and in many bead traditions they are deemed to ward-off the “evil eye” and resist malicious forces that might be directed at the wearer.

Beads might, therefore, be thought of as efficacious amulets, protecting the wearer. It’s quite poignant to reflect upon the possibility that little glass beads might be attempts to safeguard against dangers that must otherwise have been often out-with the control of ancient people. These perils might include being stricken with sudden disease or mishap, or even include threats perceived to emanate from a more supernatural source!

Few, if any, of these societal attributes and associations can currently be proven for Scottish Iron Age glass beads. However, the more beads we find from good archaeological contexts, the more we can gather comparative information and apply scientific analyses. Patterns emerge relating to use-wear, or colour preference, or the specific placement or deposition of beads in the ground.

In this latter regard, the context of our beads from Swartigill is the infill of the construction trench that was dug to accommodate Structure A, our souterrain. This sinuous stone-lined passage was, at least partly, underground, and dates to the last few centuries BC.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie
Swartigill’s souterrain passage. (Sigurd Towrie)

As the beads come from the moment of construction of the souterrain, they may well fit into a pattern recognised across Iron Age Scottish sites where the deliberate placement of artefacts or animal remains during the establishment of new buildings seems to represent foundational ceremonies. The location and placement of the beads may, then, be no mere accidental loss and might give us an insight into measures taken to initiate important new buildings in the Iron Age. Intriguingly, we have also recovered beads from two other souterrains, which we’ve excavated in Orkney, at The Cairns, and at Windwick, both in South Ronaldsay.

Swartigill souterrain. (Sigurd Towrie)

So, does the discovery of these little beads really alter any of our overall thoughts on the site at Swartigill?

Well, no doubt more excavations of Iron Age sites will yield miniscule beads in coming years, but their discovery from Swartigill is significant and perhaps quite telling. It could be all too easy to consider the site of Swartigill as located in a marginal portion of the landscape, a heathy, quite wet, boggy zone, away from the best arable farmland in the area.

Meanwhile, the buildings at Swartigill are perhaps not what people immediately think of when they think of the Iron Age in the north of Scotland with its monumental brochs, which are often set in conspicuous and prominent landscape locations.

By comparison, the Swartigill site possesses relatively thin-walled buildings that must have been fairly low, and these sat in a portion of the land that is tucked down in a little valley of the Swartigill Burn, quite unobtrusive in its nature.

It would be all too tempting, then, to view Swartigill as a modest, low-key settlement whose occupants wrested a living from the less-than-best farmland. Perhaps  Swartigill occupied a lesser position in a hierarchical social structure, an outlying settlement under the authority of the much more substantial broch at Thrumster Mains just over a kilometre to the south-east?

From the outset of the Swartigill excavations, though, there have been artefactual clues that, at least some of the inhabitants at Swartigill, possessed the types of objects that are often thought by Iron Age scholars to be important status-conferring objects.

Another type of beautifully finished object of personal adornment: one of the substantial shale bangle fragments from Swartigill. (Tom O’Brien)

These include a small fragment of a bronze decorative object, and two shale/cannel coal bangle fragments. These are rather nice personal items, suggesting some individuals at Swartigill had the wherewithal to procure them and the confidence to wear and display them.

Fragment of a bronze decorative object from Swartigill. (Tom O’Brien)

These were not necessarily the actions of a down-at-heel peasant settlement scratching a subsistence-based, hand-to-mouth existence. And this is where the discovery of tiny artefacts like the miniscule glass beads comes in, helping us gauge the character of the community who lived at the site two millennia ago. 

They help us see past any assumptions that the site fitted neatly into a simplistic social hierarchy.

The newly discovered beads are part of the on-gong archaeological process and investigations that weave back and forth between the archaeology of the structures and the more intimate personal items at Swartigill.


  1. We have found two blue miniscule beads here in Strath Brora over the years. One from the earth in a molehill and one excavated from a Pre-Clearnace dwelling. Happy to send a photo for comparison. I note you don’t discuss manufacture – it has always puzzled how such tiny, delicate object can be fashioned in molten form and a hole inserted, without severe burns to the maker!

    1. Martin replies:

      Yes, it’s nice to see that more of these tiny beads are coming up in well-excavated sites with good sample procedures. This blog was concentrating on their uses and contexts rather than fabrication, as there’s been much more emphasis upon the making of them in recent years than their actual use, and because it looks like they are not being made in Atlantic Scotland, so not directly relatable to the site at Swartigill.

      It is remarkable to contemplate making beads this tiny. Essentially, they spin a tiny piece of molten glass on a pin/point called a mandrel and then remove the piece once its cooled slightly and that leaves the hole.

      Fairly freshly made beads, like several from Culduthel, retained iron-staining (iron scale) inside the perforation showing they probably hadn’t been used much or this would have worn away. That description of the mandrel bead-making probably makes it sound easy- but it isn’t.

      In some of the larger beads you can see that the mandrel is inserted once the glass is already semi-molten as there’s an entry/exit appearance (concave and convex) at each perforation. The more complex multi-coloured and patterned beads such as the ‘Scottish Northern Spirals’ are even more astounding when you contemplate the skill to make them!

  2. Fascinating read.

    As a maker of glass beads I can add, making small beads is much harder than making larger ones. It’s very hard to control the amount of heat you’re putting into the glass when you’re working with such a tiny amount, hot enough to be able to shape it, cool enough to stop it melting into a puddle.

    However cooling these beads so they didn’t break would have been easier with small beads. There won’t have been as much heat inside the bead to conflict with the cooler surface temperature. Which will make them much less prone to thermal cracking. (You can generally identify a thermal crack as it extends from bead hole to bead hold)

    The other thing, maybe obvious, smaller beads use much less glass and so if they are making beads out of recycled glass and have a very limited supply it will mean it goes much further, so more profit at the other end.

    Personally I would be very interested to see the beads made with different coloured glass.

    When working with glass, you find that transparent glass tends to be stiffer to work with, that would make the making of these tiny beads easier. The darker the transparent the stiffer it is. Opaque glass is much softer, it’s quicker to melt and harder to control. Too much heal and it’s a dripping off your rod. The lighter the opaque the softer it is.

    That tiny bubble is most likely either air being trapped between layers of glass as it’s being added, less likely boiling of the glass, there would likely be more bubbles if it was boiled.

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