Swag Beads

swag-3Swag beads are probably my favourite type of design, largely because of the name. It really is a technical term, and I am all for bringing it back into popular usage in bead studies.

swag-1Swag on a bead simply refers to a continuous wavy line traveling round the bead. It can be any colour, though I mostly see white or yellow on a dark blue, black, or sometimes ark green. These lines can also be reticella, which is composed of multiple colours twisted together to form a single line.

double swag-4Certain beads will have two wavy lines that intersect. These are called double swag, which I find even more fantastic than regular swag beads. As an aside, there are blue beads with white double swag in Scotland, and if you block them off at the right point, they create the saltire (the Scottish flag).

double swag-1I haven’t really seen the swag style outside of Europe, and if it exists, it’s rare enough that I could study Asian/African beads for 5+ years and never encounter the term or the style. As for why it’s not really found outside Europe, I’m not too sure. The design seems simple enough, and these areas were in pretty extensive contact. So it probably has little to do with lack of invention and more with simple preference for beads.

Swag beads in Europe were around for at least 1000 years, if not more. Guido cites them in her book on prehistoric and Roman beads and again in her book on Anglo-Saxon beads. Callmer also cites them in his work on Norse beads. They’re also found all over continental Europe during this period.

Something to remember is that beads can have more than one design at once. You can have zone beads that also have eyes, or swag beads that are also zone beads. Any bead can combine any number of designs, which is why documenting these designs is so difficult.

zone bead-5Swag beads can have straight lines running across them, making them essentially zone beads as well as swag beads. The best example I’ve seen of this is a swag bead with a reticella line running round the middle of the bead.

double swag-2Another example of a bead having multiple designs are double swag beads with eyes inside the openings created by the two swag lines. These also tend to complicate the eyes by making them reticella or having eyes that look like rayed suns. A lot of these tend to be found in the British Isles, and there are some really nice examples in Scotland.


Sources mentioned:

Callmer, J. 2003. Scandinavian Beads, ca. AD 700-1100. In: Glover, I., Hughes Brock, H. and Henderson, J. (eds), Ornaments from the Past: Bead Studies After Beck. London, The Bead Study Trust, 38-46.

Guido, M. 1978. The Glass Beads of the Prehistoric and Roman Periods in Britain and Ireland. London: Society of Antiquaries of London.

Guido, M. 1999. The Glass Beads of Anglo-Saxon England c. AD 400-700. Suffolk, The Boydell Press.


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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3 Responses to Swag Beads

  1. Torben says:

    About the second swag-swirled Birte Bruggman wrote in Glass beads from Early Anglo-Saxon Graves (2004) that she does not know about any piece of these outside the UK. I do have Museum photography on my drive, with one found in Norway. Beads DID travel a long long way.

    • Hi Torben! Bruggman’s book is certainly very useful, but I do believe others have been found outside the UK (as you say, you’ve seen one in Norway). Guido (1999) discusses some found in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and other areas of continental Europe. For specifically blue and white ones (blue background, white lines), Guido remarks that they aren’t terribly popular anywhere in Europe, including Britain. I do have a vague memory of some being found outside Europe, though – I’ll have a look when I can access that source again to see!

    • Just got through reading all your comments – thank you for leaving them! Your replicas are beautiful – a skill I wish I had. Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for commenting!

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