The Varied Beauty of Ancient Beads

By Bernie Bell

We are ‘Friends of’  Kilmartin Museum   and so, received the most recent edition of their journal,  ‘Kist’, which includes an article by Roddy Regan about some glass beads which were found at an Iron Age site near Loch Sween in Argyllshire This reminded me of the two glass beads which have been found at The Cairns dig in recent years.

I also remembered that an exceptional glass bead was found when Mine Howe was excavated. I used to have a booklet about Mine Howe, which I remember mentioned the bead, but – I leant it to someone who was doing an archaeology course, and never got it back!  Mine Howe is now closed to the public, so I don’t know how I could get that booklet again.   All I could find was this, and the pictures are either missing, or I can’t work out how to see them!

I had a vague memory of the bead being yellow, or yellow and black, and that’s all!

I asked Nick Card ( Director of the dig at the Ness of Brodgar ), who was one of the people who excavated Mine Howe, could he enlighten me,  and he was kind enough to send me this picture of the  bead.

Bead Minehowe

Not only yellow and black, but stripey yellow and black, with a spiral on the end!!!!!!!!

I covet the beads in Roddy’s piece, because of their iridescence.  I have a weakness for that kind of iridescence in glass, or anything – Labradorite – say no more.

I covet the green glass bead from The Cairns – it glows.

I covet the Mine Howe bead even more – a spiral on the end.  On a small bead – not a sizeable mace-head,  such as the one found at Knowth – but a small bead.

Knowth Macehead M Bell

And not just carved into it, but incorporated in the making.  I have a liking for spirals.

That must have been an exceptionally exciting find.  I would have kept it.  Maybe that’s another reason it’s best that I’m  not an archaeologist!

I’m not actually attempting to connect  the beads in any way – not saying they might be from the  same source or anything like that – just saying – here are some beautiful  beads, from a certain time,  from  here, and here, and here, just ….bringing them together, as the little wonders that they are.

In fact, Roddy tells me that the toggle beads are a specific type and analysis has shown them to be made from reused Roman glass, so unless the glass beads from The Cairns have been examined in this way,  he specifically warns me about making direct comparisons between these and the toggle beads.

And, after all that preamble, and the latest on this season’s digs…………  – here is Roddy’s piece about the Balure beads, in full, with his permission……………

A Beads’ Tale

Roddy Regan

Balure Dun lies above the eastern shore of Loch Sween, not far from Achnamara and the site takes its name from the old deserted settlement of Balure, which you pass on the forest road that gives access to the site.

The site was excavated by Kilmartin Museum in 2008 and 2009 as part of the Dalriada Project and the work was undertaken with much help from local volunteers. The results of the excavation can be found on the subsequent reports which you can find if you visit the Kilmartin Museum website.¹

The carbon dates from Balure show that the site, a typical defended enclosure or dun, was occupied between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD.

The range of finds recovered from Balure was generally typical of Argyll duns: with a limited number of pottery sherds, an iron tool, a modified stone rotary quern, a spindle whorl, some metalworking debris and utilised stones, the latter used as slick or smoothing stones, possibly used in the processing of hides or leather. More unusual was the recovery of three glass beads.


This group consisted of a spherical and perforated bead along with two toggle beads. Toggle beads are glass forms similar to beads, but not perforated and are shaped like a dumb-bell or two spherical balls cinched in the middle.²

Iron Age glass toggle beads from Scotland represent a rare group of artefacts, with 11 previously recorded prior to the two recovered at Balure. In Argyll, toggle beads have previously been recovered from three other sites at Dun Fhinn, Dunagaoil and Dun Ronachan. Elsewhere 21 toggles have been discovered in Ireland and four on the Isle of Man.³ Along with the Irish and Isle of Man glass toggle beads, there appears to be a clear western bias in their distribution. More recently a further bead has been discovered by Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology from the site of Kilninian on Mull. The Kilninian bead was found in a hearth within an unenclosed Iron Age site which suggested that the bead may have been produced at the site. The charcoal from the hearth was carbon dated and produced a date of between 200-50 BC (206-51calBC).

The Kilninian bead and the two Balure beads, along with 12 other examples, were examined by Dr Martina Bertini to assess the evidence of how these objects were manufactured and examine the chemical makeup and provenance of the raw glass. This was achieved by using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS).

Of the 15 beads examined, including the Balure beads, all are of similar manufacture. They were produced by heating small fragments of reused glass (cullet) in a low temperature fire, using an iron rod or pontil and likely shaped using small tongs (very small tongs in this case). Once shaped the beads are broken off from the pontil leaving a pontil scar; these in the case of both Balure beads were subsequently ground down, probably using very fine sand or fine grained stone. The LA-ICP-MS analysis has shown that 14 of the 15 beads examined, again including the Balure beads, contained the same soda-lime-silica (natron) which was derived from eastern Mediterranean coastal sands, which indicates the glass that was reused in the production of the beads was originally produced within the heart of the Roman world.

The analysis proved the excavator’s belief that the Kilninian bead was almost certainly produced at the site showing that the bead contained reused glass with a lot of imperfections and was also unfinished. The bead may then have been discarded which indicates it was a practice or apprentice piece.

As other glass objects are extremely rare or absent across Iron Age Argyll, it suggests the beads were being produced by travelling craftspeople and likely made for local clients. As has been argued for Ireland, it is possible that these beads were considered prestige items in places where they were rare, such as the west coast of Scotland. Apart from the discarded bead at Kilninian, all the other Argyll beads have come from duns or forts which indicates that the beads were being obtained by those of high status who occupied these sites.

However, while these may have been precious things it is not entirely clear what these toggles may have been used for or how they may have been worn or displayed, if one assumes they were decorative objects.

Examples of the possible use of such objects are rare and include tin toggles that were found woven into a plaited cowhair arm band from a Bronze Age cist burial at Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor.⁴ At Knowth in Ireland, a glass toggle bead was located around the neck of an early medieval skeleton, suggesting it was used as a pendant.⁵ A similar use is perhaps suggested by the wear pattern that can be seen around the central ‘hip’ of the beads from Balure.

The toggle beads are archaeologically important as they appear to be an indigenous phenomenon and show links across the Atlantic region in the Iron Age, not just with Ireland and the Isle of Man, but with the wider Romanised world beyond.


  1. Regan, R. 2008. Balure Dun, Dalriada Project, Excavation Data Structure Report, Kilmartin Museum Report No.20. Regan, R. 2009. Balure Dun, Dalriada Project, Excavation Data Structure Report II, Kilmartin Museum
  2. Beck, H C 1973Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants.Liberty Cap Books,York, PA.
  3. Jordan, A, 2009.A preliminary study of Iron Age glass in Ireland, with particular emphasis on the glass beads.University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jordan, A, 2010. The toggle and indigenous Iron Age glass production in Ireland. Field notes: A journal of Collegiate Anthropology 2(1), 25-36.
  4. Jones, A M 2016Preserved in the peat: An Extraordinary Bronze Age burial on Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor, and its wider context. Oxford: Oxbow Books
  5. Eogan, G 1974 Report on the excavation of some passage graves, unprotected inhumation burials and a settlement site at Knowth, Co. Meath.Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy74C: 11-112.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , ,

7 replies »

  1. And, to quote from The Cairns dig diary for day 6…………..

    “In the grand scheme of discoveries, however, the glass bead that was found slightly South of Structure K in the village settlement, from ashy soils there, must be the find of the day. The bead is a small annular pale yellow one. Ursula found it in the Area Q just to the south of Structure K. This brings the total of glass beads found on site to seven.”

    I was only aware of the blue one and the green one – I’m not paying enough attention!

Leave a Reply