Roman Influence

If we look at beads found at sites in Britain from the pre-Roman Iron Age through the Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 1000 years), we can easily see Roman influence.  You might be surprised to think we can see such a thing in such small objects (generally less than 1cm in diameter), but we can.

Here’s an example.  In the pre-Roman Iron Age in Britain, one specific type of bead is a single background colour (often black or green or something) decorated with twisting, multicoloured cables (often lighter colours, like yellow and white or yellow and colourless).  This is a type that I have only really seen in Britain, and it is apparently a very old style.

When the Romans come into Britain, we see a complete difference in the beads used.  These twisted cable beads disappear, as do many of the other types of beads associated with the pre-Roman Iron Age.  We see typical Roman beads enter the picture, but the main Roman objects made from glass are vessels.

The Romans leave Britain in the 5th century and the Anglo-Saxons come in, we see something interesting.  The twisted-cable beads reappear, along with several other types from the pre-Roman Iron Age.

That’s right, a bead type that was out of use for roughly 400 years resurfaced.  And not just one or two, they were fairly widespread.  That’s like a significant number of people today decided to adopt fashions from the time of Charles I, Louis XIII, and the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock.

Honestly, I have a lot of questions stemming from that: Why do these beads disappear and then reappear? How do they reappear after so long? Does this have any connection to the change in glass chemistry during the Roman period? And if so, what does that mean? The change in chemistry probably came from a lack of access to resources, since the recipe they changed to was more brittle than the Roman glass.  But design doesn’t necessarily change due to a lack of material.  Could it be a cultural thing that somehow survived Roman occupation? But how would it transfer from the populations of the pre-Roman Iron age to the later immigrant populations of Angles and Saxons?

And here’s another thing: are we sure it’s a continuation of the previous pattern and not just a coincidental independent invention?

It leads to a whole question of whether classifying certain categories or designs of any object (including beads) is really an accurate way of trying to understand the past.  There is nothing about this type that makes it solely Anglo-Saxon, since it existed in the pre-Roman Iron Age.  Yet, we still class it as Anglo-Saxon.  Why?  Is that really a valid representation of that particular style?


About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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5 Responses to Roman Influence

  1. It’s tempting, without any further knowledge, to link this intriguing phenomenon to the revival of pre-Roman hillfort sites in the fifth century. I wonder if older examples of the twisted beads might have been recovered at such sites and taken as a kind of indigenous tradition that was worth reviving now that Britannia was no longer Roman. Would the finds pattern fit that, do you know?

    • It could easily fit, though I haven’t had much time to really look at it. We know that old sites were being reused, and there is no reason to assume the objects weren’t recovered as well. When the chemistry switches in Egyptian and Middle Eastern glasses, we see evidence that they were experimenting to get back to that signature – it wasn’t like someone actually remembered the recipe. I don’t know if a similar thing is happening here or if there is recovery of pre-Roman beads which inspire people to collect them and then make copies. We don’t really have enough evidence for beads in that sense (it’s still a very young specialty. But the explanation is entirely plausible, and we know that beads made in roughly 200 BC are still in use today in some parts of the world – both the designs and the actual beads.

      One issue is that bead designs are less distinctive than those of a lot of other artefact types. You can come up with the idea of putting dots around your bead without needing someone to show you how, and the same is true of stripes. Since many of the designs are fairly simplistic, it’s hard to say if it’s influence (either from living or past groups) or independent invention. But it certainly does leave such possibilities open!

      (and this is why I love beads!)

      • Yes, repeatable innovation must be hard to rule out, but if one had both older and newer beads from the one site, with decent stratigraphy—I know, I know, and the moon on a stick, why not?—that would at least be some kind of gun from which smoke jmight reasonably be hypothesized…

      • Yes, absolutely – my problem is that I haven’t had enough time to look into whether we have the same beads from the same site – part of the PhD!

      • Aha! Well, good luck… I’m sure you will keep the world posted!

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