Early Bronze Age use of jet and jet-like materials, 22nd century – c 1750 BC

This period saw the greatest use of jet and jet-like materials in Scottish prehistory, with the following objects in use:

  1. V-perforated buttons
  2. Disc-bead necklaces
  3. Belt rings
  4. Spacer-plate necklaces and bracelets
  5. Disc-and-fusiform bead necklaces
  6. Disc-and-fusiform bead belt, at Culduthel, Highland
  7. Fusiform-bead jewellery and individual fusiform and disc (and biconical) beads;
  8. Napkin ring’ garment fasteners
A photograph of jet artefacts comprising around 30 buttons slightly conical in shape with some decorated, a ring, and an elongated bead

Figure a: V-perforated buttons and pulley belt ring from Harehope, Scottish Borders. Photo: ©NMS

Virtually all of these have been found in funerary contexts, usually cists, most often with inhumed bodies but sometimes with cremated remains (in which cases the artefacts must have been kept apart from the body during cremation).

V-perforated buttons are a type of dress accessory that was adopted from Continental Beaker use, and some have indeed been associated with Beaker pottery in graves in Scotland (Kirkcaldy, Fife and Limefield, South Lanarkshire: 2009, Cat. Nos. 125 and 130), as elsewhere in Britain (ibid., Appendix).

A composite image showing a jet button with a linear cross decoration on the left and illustration drawings of six similar examples on the right

Figures b & c : V-perforated buttons from Rameldry Farm, Fife: top: the decorated button; bottom: the set of buttons. (Note: No. 2 is of lizardite, not jet.) From Sheridan and Davis in Baker et al 2003 – illustration by Sylvia Stevenson

Others have been found in a ‘dagger grave’ at Rameldry Farm, Fife (Figure b; Sheridan and Davis, in Baker et al 2003); some with no artefactual associations (e.g. at Harehope, Scottish Borders: Figure a; 2009 , Cat. No. 134); and some used as a fastener for a spacer plate necklace (as at the head of Campbeltown Loch). Their Scottish distribution is shown in Figure c.

Figure c: Distribution of V-perforated buttons (squares) and pulley belt rings (triangles). From Sheridan and Davis 2002 

The gender associations and various uses of V-perforated buttons have been discussed by Shepherd (ibid.); most of the Scottish examples had been associated with males, although their occasional use as fasteners in spacer plate necklaces (see below) indicates some use by females. Some had clearly been used to fasten jackets, as at Rameldry Farm; here, a set of six were found (including one of lizardite); it appears, from finds elsewhere in Britain, that six was the standard number of buttons used in this way. At Harehope, one exceptionally large button may have been used to fasten a cloak, as Shepherd has suggested (2009), while some of the other buttons in the cist in question may have been decorative studs, rather than functioning buttons.

Some V-perforated buttons are decorated, and at Rameldry Farm one of the jet buttons (Figure b) has a unique form of decoration, consisting of selective dulling of the highly-polished surface to pick out a design including zig-zags, together with inlaid metallic tin. The significance of this button is discussed by Sheridan and Davis in Baker et al 2003.

The materials used for V-perforated buttons are jet, cannel coal/oil shale and albertite. Albertite (most probably from Strathpeffer near Dingwall) had been used to make the button found at Isbister, Orkney. It is a naturally shiny material, and its identification through analysis by Mary Davis puts paid to a long-standing canard trotted out to thousands of visitors during tours at Isbister, where it is claimed that this button was dull when found by farmer Ronnie Simison, but when it came back from the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland laboratory in the 1950s or 60s, it had been ‘polished up’: in fact, it had simply had the covering sediment removed, to reveal the natural brilliance of the raw material. This is not the only artefact known to have been made of albertite: an object found on Culbin Sands, Moray, is also of this material.

A photograph of a string filled with flat disc shaped jet beads around 1cm wide with an average thickness of 0.25mm and a toggle fastener

Figure d: Disc-bead necklace from Barbush Quarry, Dunblane, Stirling. From Sheridan and Davis 2001

The Scottish examples of disc-bead necklaces – of which just over 30 are known – feature beads that are between c 5 mm and c 10 mm in diameter, subtly graded in size, with the largest ones at the front of the neck – as in a fine example from Barbush Quarry, Dunblane, Stirling (Figure d; Holden and Sheridan 2001 ). Where the sex of the deceased has been reliably identified, in every case in Scotland it has been female. In most cases, these necklaces have been made from cannel coal or oil shale rather than jet; their ceramic (and other) associations have been discussed in detail in Holden and Sheridan 2001 . Essentially, where pottery has been present, it has been either late Beaker (as at Stoneykirk, Dumfries and Galloway: Mann 1902) or Food Vessel. One remarkable example of a disc-bead necklace, with a second strand made of metallic lead beads, was found associated with an infant aged 3-5 at West Water Reservoir, Scottish Borders (Figure e; Hunter and Davis 1994).

These size-graded disc-bead necklaces appear to represent a development from the Chalcolithic necklaces comprising tiny disc beads of uniform (or nearly so) size – although the use of tiny disc beads certainly continued into the Early Bronze Age, as discussed below.

A photograph showing a string of disc shaped jet beads with small beads at the top, becoming wider at the middle with a shorter string of metallic beads attached

Figure e: Disc-bead necklace with second strand of metallic lead beads, from West Water Reservoir, Scottish Borders. From Hunter and Davis 1994

A photograph showing two chunky jet rings, one decorated with lines along the edge, and another decorated with oval indentations along the edge and radial lines on the side

Figure f : Early Bronze Age jet pulley belt rings, from near Kirriemuir.

Pulley belt rings (Fig. f) are a male dress accessory; like the aforementioned objects, belt rings formed part of the Beaker assemblage of prestige objects, with one such example (of Kimmeridge shale) having been found associated with the famous ‘Amesbury Archer’, near Stonehenge (Fitzpatrick 2011). Fewer than ten have been found in Scotland, and all seem to be of cannel coal or oil shale, rather than jet; other Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age belt rings, made from bone, are also known (Stevenson 1957). The distribution of pulley belt rings is shown in Figure c.

A composite image showing a photograph of a necklace comprising ten strands of toggle shaped beads leading to rectangular spacer plates at each side and narrowing to triangular shaped beads at the fastener on the left and an illustration of a similar example with linear decorations on the spacer plates to the right

(left) Figure g: Spacer plate necklace from Inchmarnock, Argyll and Bute. Photo: Alison Sheridan: (right) Figure h: Spacer plate necklace and bracelet from Kinquharrie, Angus. Drawing by Helen Jackson for NMS

Spacer-plate necklaces (Figure g, Figure h, Figure 36; Sheridan 1998; 2008; Sheridan and Davis 1995; 2002) are a form of Early Bronze Age female jewellery that appeared as a deliberate skeuomorph of gold lunulae in the 22nd century BC. (Note that recent attempts to play down the ‘skeuomorph’ idea (e.g. Roberts and Frieman 2012) ignore the fact that the surviving examples include some old necklaces that, through loss and mixing of components, have deviated from their original shape, and others that constitute regionally-distinctive versions that are not as close copies of gold lunulae as the ones found in Scotland.) Some have decorated spacer plates, others have undecorated spacer plates; and the maximum number of strands ranges from three to 10. Fasteners range in shape from flat triangular, to boat-shaped and cuboid; as noted above, in a few cases, V-perforated buttons have been re-used as fasteners. Their distribution is shown in Fig. i. In a few cases, spacer plate bracelets have also accompanied the necklaces, as a parure (matching set); at Melfort, the bracelets took the form of a pair of bronze bangles.

Figure 36: Fig 9 9i) Distribution of spacer plate necklaces and bracelets in Scotland. From Sheridan and Davis 2002TO COME

Where pottery has been associated, it has been of Food Vessel type. Where the sex of the deceased has been reliably determined, it has been female. In some cases, the necklaces were not very old when buried (as at Mount Stuart, Bute, for example); in others, they were old and worn, and in some cases (as at Inchmarnock, off Bute) they have been made up from parts of several necklaces. Clearly, then, some of these treasured possessions were passed down the generations; components such as individual beads (e.g. at Scalpsie, Bute) or spacer plates (as at Inchmarnock cist 2) would be buried on their own.

A photograph of a string with various jet beads comprising disc shaped beads up to 1 cm wide on one side and elongated toggle shaped beads up to 3cm long on the other

Figure j: Fig 10 Disc-and-fusiform bead necklace from Greenhill, Fife. Photo: © NMS

Disc-and-fusiform bead necklaces (Figure 37) comprise beads taken from pre-existing spacer plate and disc-bead necklaces, strung together and closed with a fastener, usually boat-shaped. As with their ‘parent’ necklaces, these appear to have been worn as female jewellery. Where pottery has been associated, it has been of Food Vessel type.

One slightly unusual disc-and-fusiform necklace was found in a probable double-interment cist at Masterton, Fife (Henshall and Wallace 1963). Here, the disc beads are tiny and of uniform size, like the ones previously noted from Chilbolton and Devil’s Dyke. In fact, the use of tiny disc beads of jet and jet-like (and indeed other) materials had a currency spanning several centuries; they were popular in Early Bronze Age Yorkshire (e.g. at Garton Slack) and have been found to date as late as the 15th century BC (at Amesbury Solstice Park, Wiltshire). The Masterton necklace also has two terminal plates, like those seen on spacer plate necklaces.

A photograph of a large string with uniformly sized disc jet beads leading to elongated beads at each side towards a toggle fastener

Figure k: Disc- and fusiform-bead belt from Culduthel, Highland. Photo: © NMS

An alternative use for disc and fusiform beads is attested at Culduthel, Highland, where they were found as a belt (Figure k), in the waist region of a female crouched skeleton (Low 1929). Here, both tiny disc beads, and others that are comparable in size with those seen in graded-size disc-bead necklaces, are present. The individual in question has recently been radiocarbon dated, as part of the Beaker People Project project, to 3697±33 BP (OxA-V-2166-45 S-EVA 1130, 2200-1970 cal BC at 95.4% probability).

In a few cases, as indicated above, individual fusiform or disc beads have been found as grave goods; in most cases these will have been heirloom pieces, originating in necklaces. However, at Poltalloch in Kilmartin Glen, a bracelet of small fusiform beads seems to have been made specifically as an accompaniment to a jet spacer plate necklace. These beads are of cannel coal or lignite (Sheridan and Davis 1995). Similarly, at Balneaves, Angus, a relatively large fusiform bead found in a Collared Urn with cremated bones might not have been an heirloom object; charcoal from another Collared Urn in the same cemetery urn was radiocarbon dated to 3430±40 BP (GU-2446, 1880-1620 cal BC at 95.4% probability; Russell-White et al. 1992). At Cairnholy chamber tomb, Dumfries and Galloway, a single biconical jet bead was found (Figure 39; Piggott and Powell 1949). This is reminiscent of some biconical beads found in rich graves in Wessex; whether it dates to the first or second quarter of the second millennium is a moot point. Other similarly-shaped beads are known from Mouswald, Dumfries and Galloway (Anon 1889) and could conceivably be contemporary.

A photograph of a spherical black bead with a central perforation

Figure l: Squat, gently biconical jet bead from Cairnholy, Dumfries and Galloway. Photo: NMS

Finally, ‘napkin rings’ (Figure m) are a regionally-specific object type, found only in northern England and southern Scotland (Hunter 1998). A pair found (by Biggar Archaeology Group) in situ at Camps Reservoir, South Lanarkshire, suggest their use as giant eyelets for a cloak fastener: it is likely that a thong had passed through them. All the examples so far discovered appear to have been of cannel coal or oil shale, rather than jet. Examples known to 1998 are listed by Hunter (1998); the example from Blairhall Burn, South Lanarkshire, comes from a round-house dated to between 1880 and 1530 cal BC, so the possibility that this object type may date to the second, rather than the first quarter of the second millennium BC must be borne in mind.

A composite image showing two chunky napkin ring shaped objects lying in soil during excavation on the left and a photograph of the rings on the right after conservation

Figure m:’Napkin rings’ from Camps Reservoir, South Lanarkshire: left: in situ (photo: Tam Ward); right: side view (photo: Alison Sheridan)

What has not yet been found in Scotland – and indeed might not have been used, bearing in mind its geographical distribution – is the ear stud or labret. (See Yates et al. 2012 for recently-discovered examples from Norfolk.)

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