Thursday, May 28, 2015

Notes about the aesthetics of Anglo-Saxon beads

The information below was collected as a result of feedback from this years K&Q's A&S competition. I'll continue to add information to this write up as I find it (I have a few more ILL books on the way), but I'm posting this now on my blog because I have some other research and documentation I need to work on at the moment. This was however, and interesting question to try to answer, and it took me in directions I did not expect to be going with my research, which was a good thing. I'll need to  figure out later how I can incorporate some of what I've written into my more formal A&S documentation. Please consider the following a rough draft, as some citation information still needs to be added or checked for accuracy.


My recreation efforts have focused on the early Anglo-Saxon period, between the 5th-8th century (400-700).  The main reason for this early focus is that beads from this time period are the ones that are available to us to study. As Anglo-Saxon society converted to Christianity, people stopped being burred with grave goods, and it is from grave goods that most of our knowledge of glass beads arises. However, when I read about Anglo-Saxon art, glass beads are almost never discussed. When  historians look at early Anglo-Saxon (or Migration Period) art, it is the metalwork they give all their attention. Other studies dismiss early period art entirely, focusing on the art that was influenced by the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. According to one source "little of artistic interest survives from" the early Anglo-Saxon period,"and the art that is important and worth consideration are " stone buildings...crosses and the production of liturgical books, vessels, and vestments" (Oxford Art Online, "Anglo-Saxon Art). Where glass specifically is mentioned as an art form, the focus is on stained glass in churches during the later period. 

This leads to the question, why are beads not considered by art historians as being worth studying. Evidence from graves shows us that beads were significant and highly symbolic objects of adornment for women of all ranks. Perhaps the reason they are not given considerations by art historians is due to the simplistic (and sometimes rough) nature of their decoration. When compared to beads produced in the middle east during and after this time period, Anglo-Saxon beads are rather crude. Beads have also have a history of having been ignored by archeologists (Mannion; Brugmann) and only in the last several decades has a very serious study of them begun to take place.

Regardless of the reasons, glass beads can still be considered in light of broader aesthetic styles of the time period. However, because I have not found an academic who has made this connection for me, much of what I have to say here regarding glass beads will be my own thoughts in light of the academic research I have done.

To view pictures of Anglo-Saxon beads as you read, you can visit these two pages from my blog

Mucking Typology
Brugmann's Typology

To discuss early Anglo-Saxon artistic style it also helps to research the art of the Migration Period, the time from the 5th-8th century when the Germanic tribes overran and settled in areas once controlled by the declining Roman empire. Early Anglo-Saxon art is heavily influenced by the styles of the Germanic tribes who settled in England. While some Migration period art forms may have contained lingering Roman influences, several sources note that Anglo-Saxon art, including glass beads, do not seem to have been influenced much by the Romans at all (Guido 3-4, Owen-Crocker 7).

The Roman's preferred small shaped monochrome shaped beads in transparent blue and green (Brugmann 28-29). This style is nothing like the colorful and decorative Germanic style. According to one art historian, the "relationship between Saxons in England and the Saxons on the continent was never forgotten. There as a relationship of taste too...the tastes of Anglo-Saxon England were never markedly different from the tastes on the European Mainland" (Dodwell, 24). In fact, many Anglo-Saxon glass beads were imported form the continent or based off of continental designs (Brugmann).

Adornment was important to the semi-nomadic Germanic tribes, because these items were basically portable and very visible wealth (Dubin 73). As a result, much of the surviving artwork from the Migrationon period on the continent and in early Anglo-Saxon England consists of "decoration applied to portable equipment" that has been recovered as grave goods  (Oxford Art Online, "Migration Period"). One of the most "distinctive features" of Migration period art its range of color and surface patterning, seen mainly in jewelry" (Oxford Art Online, " Migration Period Art).  This stylistic preference was actual brought to Europe from more Eastern civilizations  (south Russian and Iranian traditions) by the Germanic tribes, which had been nomadic long before they overran the remains of the Roman Empire.

In general, early Migration period art consisted of "abstract geometric designs, together with simple human and animal figures of symbolic purpose" (Oxford Art Online, "Migration Period"). This style is perhaps best expressed in metalwork. Early Anglo-Saxon metalwork was"dominated by highly stylized animal and human figures from the Germanic Tradition" and sources note that the animals likely held symbolic or spiritual significance for the wearers (Oxford Art Online, "Anglo-Saxon Art)  As a result, one would think that these human and animal figures would also be found on beads, however, there is likely a practical reason that they are not. While it is relatively easy to add geometric designs to beads in the form of dots, lines, waves,  zig-zags  to make patterns on glass beads, my experiences attempting to make SCA order medallions has taught me that drawing  more complex designs on a glass bead is very difficult, even with my modern torch set up. Now, sculpting animals and figures can be done a bit more easily. The Phoenicians, for example, made glass beads in the shape of animal and human heads. However, this is not something that is found in Anglo-Saxon glass. I'm honestly not sure why. Overall, I have not found much that indicates that Anglo-Saxon glass designs were ritually or spiritually significant in any way. Many cultures, both earlier and later than the Anglo-Saxons created "evil eye beads" as protective amulets. However, no archeologists that I have read have identified an Anglo-Saxon bead with such a design. The closest I have come to a symbolic design on a bead is an Annular Twist pendant bead with a cross design on it, and it is the only cross design I have seen on an Anglo-Saxon glass bead.

While Anglo-Saxon glass beads did not incorporate Migration period stylistic preference for symbolic animal and human designs, glass beads can be seen to adhere to other aspects of Anglo-Saxon style. Anglo-Saxon artistic style was generally characterized by "bright and shining decoration" (Oxford Art Online, "Anglo-Saxon Art). Sculptures and walls were often painted bright colors (although little evidence of this remained today) and this preference for bright and contrasting colors and decoration is refereed to as polychromy by many books on Anglo-Saxon and Migration period art. In general surface decoration on objects was important to the Anglo-Saxons: "for them, it was the undecorated that was exceptional (Dodwell 38). The  "visual aesthetic of early Anglo-Saxon jewelry" was one of "dense ornament and busy surfaces which play on contrasts of glitter and plainness" (Webster, 8). While simple monochrome beads made up a large number of beads found at excavation sites (this is likely because they are much easier to produce), decorated Anglo-Saxon beads that are found have bright colors and surfaces filled with design; often several overlapping basic design elements are present (dots with waves, lines with waves, or two overlapping waves with dots, etc). Higher status graves also generally have more complexly decorated beads that lower status graves, showing that these decorated beads were highly valued (Hirst and Clark).

A wide variety of glass colors are evident in Anglo-Saxon glass; really all the basic colors of the rainbow are represented, along with white, brown and black. Archeologists have shown how metals were used to color glass since ancient time, and Anglo-Saxon bead artists also likely knew how to alter the colors of the glass that was imported to the island from other areas  by adding recycled glass of other colors to a crucible of glass before making their beads (Henderson). Nothing I have seen indicates that certain colors were harder to acquire than others. However, some colors were prefered for aesthetic reasons. The word polychromy also refers more specifically to a Migration period preference for red (glass or garnet) and gold ornamentation. Decoration with garnet and gold (the later of which became much more easily available for a time during this period) became very popular in the Merovingian kingdom and by extension in Anglo-Saxon society (Oxford Art Online, "Anglo Saxon Art). Merovingian bead design had a clear color preference for red and gold, and many beads  with these colors are found in Anglo-Saxon graves as imports. 

The Anglo-Saxons also were interested by "variable brightens;" they did not have our modern obsession with color itself (Dodwell, 33-4). The opposition of light and dark is actually a regular theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry (Webster 25). In the physical arts, this contrast is found in the gold and red polychrome style mentioned above  (Websiter 25). This preference for variable brightness and a general lack of concern about the colors themselves might explain the red, yellow, and green "traffic light beads," a bead design that was created by Anglo-Saxons (and not imported from the continent). To modern eyes, this color combination is somewhat garish, but the colors do contrast very well with each other on beads. This red, green and yellow color combination can also be found in some pages of the Lindsfarne gospels.

During 7-8th centuries bead in Anglo-Saxon England became less associated with the Germanic continent. The designs became more simple and more monochrome. With the spread of Christianity, glass stopped being burred in graves, and our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon glass beads decreases as a result.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Firebrick Bead Furnace Draft Documentation

Draft documentation from experiments conducted with Bruni and Aibhilin (May 2 and 3) with a firebrick bead furnace.

Please note that this documentation is in progress and things may change as we continue to edit the document. Information may also be added after further experimentation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A close up view of some of my early beads

 I've been told that one of the things I should start doing is showing off some of my less than perfect beads. I've done this recently with a few projects to make the process I go through when learning a new design more evident.  However, another reason to show off my less than perfect beads is to let new bedmakers know that we all start from the beginning, and that as far as I have come with my bead making stills, I was once new just like they are. Below are some of my earliest beads, posted here, so others can see.

Many of them are in the same basic colors, because one of the ways I tried to learn beaming was to take a glass rod, and made bead after bead using a technique to practice and to try and troubleshoot my technique. However, some of my earliest work with "stringer" decoration has not been saved because I did not even practice this decoration on a bead. I headed up the end of glass rod, mushed it flat into a paddle shape, and decorated the paddle. This was a nice way to practice decoration techniques efficiently because I did not need to invest as much time in the creation of a bead to decorate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

May-be Event in Iron Bog

A happy day spent teaching and demonstrating glass beads.

I really love May-be. Its  small local event, and I get to spend the entire day demonstrating and teaching. Plenty of customers, but not too overwhelming. I also really like making beads to order for the younger children who come over to visit and are not old enough to try on their own.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Period Beadmaking Experiments

This weekend, Bruni, Aibhilin and I made beads using a more period appropriate fire source.  Documentation is forthcoming, and future projects are being planned based on what we learned! Stay Tuned.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Recreated Portway Andover Necklace

A photograph of the finished necklace on display at Mudthaw!


Extra Beads from Portway Andover Necklace

Below are a bunch of beads that I made for my Portway Andover Necklace project that did not make it into the final necklace for one reason or another. What I want to do for this blog post is talk a bit about some of these beads, and why I did not include them in my final project, in the hope that it will offer a bit of insight into my thinking and my process for recreating this historic necklace.


All of the beads pictured are perfectly good beads. I did not make a major error in technique on any of these beads. In fact, I've realized that it is much rarer for me to actually "mess up" on a bead with a design that I am familiar than it was a year or two ago. The reason I did not include these beads in my necklace was because they were  not "exactly" what I wanted for this project. Because I have a higher level of technical skill than I did when completing my earlier necklace recreations ( and because all of the techniques and beads in this necklace were already familiar to me from past projects) I wanted to try to do something a little different to challenge myself with this project. When making this necklace I wanted to try to come "as close as I could"  to reproducing the beads based on the information found in the archeological report (size measurements, photographs, and drawings of each bead). For some beads I was able to come closer than others before I reach the point where I felt that to try any more would make me frustrated (its important to keep this fun!). 

I enjoyed this project because it let me challenge myself in different ways. It helped me learn to look at bit more closely at historic beads, and it let me me work to use my technical skills to try to make the glass do more exactly what I wanted it to do. I also liked the idea of trying to recreate the beads more accurately, because I think that subtle things, such as the thickness of a stringer design, and the placement of design elements closer or farther from each other, effects the overall feel of the bead. Hopefully my beads feel like a closer reproduction on this necklace than they have before.

A sampling of some of my thoughts and considerations as I recreated some of the beads for this project are below. If I were starting this necklace now, I would likely try blogging about each type of bead separately.

-When making the yellow and dark blue melon beads, I counted the number or ribs on the bead. I was able to do this for 2 of the 3 melon beads in this necklace because a top down view was given of the historic bead which enabled me to count the number of ribs. I then tried to make my bead not only the same size, but with the same number of ribs as the historic bead.

-When making the yellow melon bead, I was not happy with the transparent yellow glass rod I ordered. It was too light in color. So I mixed a very little bit of opaque yellow into the transparent yellow glass. This made the color darker, but still created a glass bead that was mostly transparent.

-When making the black and white wavy beads I noticed that some of the waves were thicker than others, so I tried playing with stringers of different thickness to see if I could get my beads to look closer to the historic beads. I also tried playing with how close or far away each wave was to the other waves. To the left are some of the beads I did not end up using, but you can use this picture to see how the thickness of the line varies between the beads, and how the space between the waves on the beads varies. This variation is particularly strong  when you compare the left most bead and the third bead from the left.

-When making the raked red and yellow and green and yellow beads I tried to count or infer the number of raked lines that were on the historic bead, and make my beads with a similar number of raked lines. I also tried to modify the thickness of my stringer and my placement of the stringer so I could place the same number of wraps around the bead as in the historic examples.

-When replicating the amber beads using amber colored glass I tried to make my beads the same size as the historic beads. Most of the beads were fairly uniform, so this was easy. However a few beads were much more irregular in their shape. At first I made these "irregular" bead much more "regular"  in shape. However, after talking with Clare/Isabel about the project, she made me realize that I really knew that I should try to reproduce them more accurately, even if it meant creating beads that were obviously uneven.

-Perhaps my most interesting revelation came when I was working on making the green and yellow zig-zag beads pictured to the right. I noticed that the archeological report described these beads have having a "wave design." However, after making a bead with a wave design (left most bead) I'm not sure that was the best or most accurate term to use. Zig-Zag seems to me to be a better and more accurate design term to use, so I modified my technique accordingly

Going further, when looking at the images of this type bead in the archeological report (image right), I noticed that the zig-zag design was not very crisp. There was a lot of glass contained in the tips of the zig-zag. After trying several times, I could not replicate this look very well. I could sort of get there, but it felt very awkward when trying. Having seen a period reconstruction of a bead with a similar design on You Tube, I think that part of the issue is  the modern torch and methods I am using. Thinking about this now, I might be able to try to more accurately recreate the construction method seen in the video if I use a softened ball of glass on the end of a rod to make my design instead of a modern thin piece of glass called a "stringer," and if I keep the flame very low. I will also be interested to try this design when I build my own period fire source!!!

Because these extra beads are perfectly good, many of the beads pictured above have already gone on to be used in other ways. They will not be wasted!! For example, I gave a small bag with some of these beads in it to be used in a gift basket. I also carry a small box of practice beads around with me when I do bead making demos, and sometimes I give a few of those beads away to people who stop by.