Excavation Iron Age Swartigill

Spectacular Iron Age bead is Swartigill excavation’s find of the day

The star find at the ongoing Swartigill excavation yesterday must be this little flash of colour and decoration straight from the Iron Age! It is a half fragment of a beautifully decorated glass
Swartigill bead.
The Guido Class 13 “Northern Spiral” Iron Age glass bead from Swartigill. (Bobby Friel)

The star find at the ongoing Swartigill excavation yesterday must be this little flash of colour and decoration straight from the Iron Age! It is a half fragment of a beautifully decorated glass bead.

The bead, discovered by excavator, and former UHI student, Val Ashpool, is a beautiful globular shape, with what appears to be a dark background and a very clear, well-executed, yellow spiral decoration (originally on three sides).

This bead would be officially classed as a Guido Class 13, a “Northern Spiral” – a type that would have a date range of somewhere between the 200BC and AD200.

Swartigill bead.
Excavation volunteer Val Ashpool made the fantastic find. (ORCA)

The dark background colour of these beads was traditionally taken as opaque glass (by Margaret Guido herself: aka Peggy Piggott for those of you may have recently watched the movie The Dig). But with modern backlighting we can see that this kind of bead is a deep translucent.

The beads are known to have been made in and around Invernesshire and Morayshire – at sites like the recently excavated Culduthel – where Roman glass was recycled to make them.

As far as studies can currently discern the beads were not made in the North Atlantic region of Scotland and are therefore probably imports to locations like Swartigill in Caithness, or Mine Howe in Orkney, where another such bead was discovered.

Another spiral bead of this type from Caithness was discovered during the 19th Century excavations at Bowermadden broch.

Readers may recall that this is not the first glass body ornament to be discovered from Swartigill either, as no less than three “miniscule” blue beads were recovered from environmental soil samples from the site.

The spiral bead is much larger and more ornate and was perhaps originally the centre piece of a complex string of beads.

Swartigill bead.
The glass bead lit from below, showing its translucence. (Bobby Friel)

These beads are often seen as markers of social status and identity by Iron Age scholars and this piece is certainly large and ornate enough to have made a conspicuous statement about the wearer in its own right. Click here for more on this.

The spiral bead came from the south-west extension to the site, which was opened this year to explore the extent of later building, Structure E. The bead was in a layer of rubble, perhaps associated with a possible newly emerging structure which pre-dates Structure E.

From potential facets visible on the bead it is possible that at the end of its life it had been “cold-worked” – a process whereby parts of the bead would be cut in order to further recycle it for use in things like glass paste inlays in elaborate bronze metalwork, providing colourful insets to parts of brooches and the like. This, however, will have to await possible confirmation from further examination.