Although jet and similar-looking materials had been used in Scotland since around 3600 BC, objects of these materials had been rare. However, from c 2200 BC, a significant increase in their use (by the elite) is evident in Scotland. Jewellery and dress accessories of jet, made by specialists based in the Whitby area of Yorkshire (where the only substantial source of good quality jet in Britain and Ireland exists), were imported, and copies and substitute pieces were made in Scotland using similar-looking, locally available materials (i.e. cannel coal, oil shale, lignite and albertite – the last known to outcrop around Strathpeffer, Highland).
The use of jet and jet-like materials in pre-Iron Age Britain is the subject of a current, long-term research project led by Dr Alison Sheridan of National Museums Scotland (NMS), working with Mary Davis (National Museum Wales) and with other colleagues including Lore Troalen and Dr Susy Kirk (Sheridan and Davis 2002; Sheridan 2008). The results of this work – which include compositional analysis to identify raw material – are summarised in this section. The dating of jet and jet-like artefacts has partly been achieved through the NMS’ radiocarbon dating programme (for results of which, see annual reports in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland), and partly through the Beaker People Project (Jay et al. 2012) and Beakers and Bodies Project (Curtis and Wilkin 2012), with additional dates coming from developer-funded excavations.
Jet – the semi-fossilised remains of wood of the araucaria species (i.e. the species to which monkey puzzle trees belong) – is an unusual substance in that, like amber, it is a stone that can float; a stone that can be burnt; and it has electrostatic properties. In addition, it is aesthetically pleasing and rare. All these properties – and a belief in its special powers – are likely to have lain behind its use and popularity (Sheridan and Shortland 2003). Jet is known to have been used as an amulet in the Roman and Viking periods, with late Roman writers claiming that it could be used to heal toothache, close up bloody wounds, heal gynaecological problems and even determine whether a person was feigning virginity (Allason-Jones 1996). Still used as an amulet around the world, jet is highly likely to have been attributed amuletic powers in prehistory.