Jewellery and Dress Accessories from Jet and Similar Looking Materials

Artefacts made of jet and of similar-looking but geologically distinct materials, principally cannel coal and shale, are known from Neolithic contexts in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain – including on Skye – but they are rare (Sheridan and Davis 2002; Sheridan 2012d). Similarly, a few objects made from these materials are known from Chalcolithic contexts in Britain, but a marked upswing in the manufacture of jet and jet-like jewellery and dress accessories occurred during the 22nd century BC (Sheridan and Davis 2002). It was during this time that the rich deposits of jet around Whitby, North Yorkshire, were exploited by specialist craft workers who produced a range of products, including necklaces and buttons. Virtually all of these have been found in funerary contexts. These items were clearly used as status symbols, being rare and precious, and they may also have been used as amulets. These items may have been attributed special powers on account of the unusual qualities of jet: it is warm to the touch, can float, can burn and is electrostatic. The term ‘supernatural power dressing’ has been coined to express this amuletic use of jet artefacts (Sheridan and Shortland 2003). Whitby jet continued to be exploited, at varying intensities, during and after the Bronze Age, as did substitute materials such as cannel coal and oil shale, which are more widely available including in the Highland Region.

Jewellery and dress accessories of jet and jet-like materials in Britain have been studied over the last 30 years by Sheridan and Davis, along with other colleagues at National Museums Scotland (Davis 1990; Sheridan and Davis 2002; Davis et al 2015; Sheridan 2000; 2015; 2017b; 2021). Several of the extant examples from the Highland Region have been included in this National Museums Scotland project, such as the Lairg finds (Sheridan et al 1998); the final results of the project will be published in a corpus. Some of the analytical results are published for the first time here. Note that Davis’s (1990) thesis for her Diploma of Conservation, University of Durham, analysed inter alia the spacer-plate necklaces from Achcheargary Burn (MHG11079) and Torr Sgriobhaidh (MHG41004) as well as various artefacts from Culbin Sands. The research has included compositional analysis, mainly using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, to determine and, where possible, source the raw materials. It has also examined the processes of manufacture (Sheridan 2017b), patterns of use and individual biographies of the objects in question. The project has not only confirmed that not all black objects are jet (as noted in the ScARF Bronze Age section but also revealed trends and patterns in the use of different materials. For example, locally-available substitutes for Whitby jet would be used to make replacement beads in spacer-plate necklaces as individual beads broke. Pieces of old spacer-plate necklaces would be ‘recycled’ and sometimes re-shaped for incorporation into another necklace, as is the case with the spacer-plate necklaces from Achcheargary Burn, Strathnaver, Sutherland (aka Dalmor, MHG11079), and from near the Old House of Assynt (MHG8968).There, parts of old, worn spacer plates had been cut down and re-used as beads. The Achcheargary Burn necklace also contains several beads made of cannel coal, which could have been obtained within the Highland Region.

Map showing the distribution of jet and jet-like artefacts in use between 2200 BC and 1800 BC

The range of jet and jet-like artefacts in use between 2200 BC and 1800 BC, the first four centuries of the Early Bronze Age, in the Highland Region comprises the following, with the possibility that one or two of the disc-bead necklaces could possibly be of Chalcolithic date (pre-2200 BC):

  • Disc-bead necklaces (Sheridan and Davis 2002)
  • Isolated disc beads (ie finds of fewer than five beads)
  • A disc- and fusiform-bead necklace (at Embo: MHG11630; see Table 6.9 for references)
  • A unique disc- and fusiform-bead belt (at Culduthel: MHG3782; Parker Pearson et al 2019, fig 4.28)
  • Spacer-plate necklaces (Sheridan and Davis 2002)
  • Isolated fusiform beads (ie finds of fewer than five beads)
  • V-perforated buttons (Shepherd 2009)

These examples are listed in Table 6.9.  An additional object that is likely to be of Early Bronze Age date is a lost ‘thin circular piece of shale, around 2 inches  [50.8 mm] in diameter, apparently an ornament’ from a possible log coffin at Stittenham, Dalnavie (MHG8159; Maclean 1886, 333). Three barbed and tanged arrowheads were associated with the object. The description of this object does not match that of any known type of Early Bronze Age artefact, however.

The Objects

The necklaces are all incomplete; they may well have been incomplete when buried, but in many cases the conditions of discovery were such that individual beads may well have been missed. The origins and development of the various artefact types have already been discussed in print elsewhere (Sheridan 2015a; Shepherd 2009). Essentially, the use of disc beads and of V-perforated buttons are among the continental innovations introduced by immigrant Beaker people, or these innovations were adopted through subsequent contacts with such people on the Continent. The use of both artefact types continued for several centuries, as is clear from the date of the Culduthel belt with its tiny disc beads (Case Study Culduthel Iron Age Settlement). Note that the necklace with tiny disc-beads from Yarhouse, Caithness (MHG2229), could be of Chalcolithic date as it was associated with what appears to be an All-Over-Cord-decorated Beaker.

The design of disc-bead necklaces evolved into a version featuring larger, graded-size disc beads, as exemplified by the examples from Lairg, Sutherland, and Dalmore, Easter Ross. Only 12 disc beads plus a discoidal bead or fastener were found at Lairg. This means that we cannot be certain that this was not a bracelet; well-preserved examples from elsewhere all appear to have been necklaces, so it is assumed that they belonged to a necklace. The interment of small numbers of beads that probably originated in a disc-bead necklace is attested at Morayston. That disc beads from such necklaces could be ‘recycled’ for re-use in other artefacts is clear from the six non-tiny disc beads found in the Culduthel belt and from the disc beads in the disc- and fusiform-bead necklace from Embo. The belt that was found in the waist area of an adult female at Culduthel is unique, although, more generally, the presence of belts in male graves around the same time is attested elsewhere in Britain. At Culduthel, the tiny disc beads are of an unusual material, possibly lignitic; further research is needed to determine the source of the material (Hatherley & Murray 2021).

Disc-bead necklaces

Of particular interest is the unfinished disc-bead necklace found in a cist at Dunrobin Park, where only six of 118 beads were perforated. This find suggests that there was a desire to bury a prestigious artefact with the deceased, but a complete one was unable to be acquired. So an attempt was made to make one, or a simulacrum of one, almost certainly using locally available material (probably shale).

Spacer-plate necklaces were – despite claims to the contrary – skeuomorphs of gold lunulae, and the decorated examples shared designs with lunulae. In the past they have been reconstructed wrongly, with fusiform beads arranged in a criss-cross pattern, but detailed examination has shown that they had been strung as continuous strands, increasing in length from the inner to the outer strand and thereby creating the impression of a solid area of black, analogous to the solidity of a lunula (Sheridan 2017b). The examples from the Highland Region are all incomplete and, as noted above, some components from examples discovered long ago may have been lost. However, it is clear that some include parts ‘recycled’ from other necklaces, attesting to the long use-life of some of these necklaces. In addition to the example cited above from Achcheargary Burn, the Torrish necklace incorporated spacer plates from an old necklace with both undecorated plates and decorated plates. Similarly, individual beads from spacer-plate necklaces could be buried on their own, as at Lierabol and Cladh Aindreis, or incorporated into other artefacts, as with the belt from Culduthel and the disc-and-fusiform bead necklace from Embo.

Jet necklace and two flints from a short cist burial cairn at Torrish. ©Michael Sharpe

Of note is the find from near the Old House of Assynt, where parts of a complete Parure of spacer-plate jewellery was found, comprising part of a spacer-plate necklace and parts of a pair of spacer-plate bracelets. Such sets, often with just a single bracelet, and in the case of Melfort, Argyll and Bute, and Masterton, Fife, with bronze bangles taking the place of jet spacer-plate bracelets, are paralleled elsewhere in Early Bronze Age Scotland (Clarke et al 1985, 286, 288–9, figs 4.38, 5.14, 5.48, 5.50; note that the Masterton necklace has no plates).

Only a few V-perforated buttons have been found in the Highland Region; they were reviewed by the late Ian Shepherd (2009). Shepherd includes the boat-shaped V-perforated fastener of jet from the Culduthel belt in his corpus and the round, domed button used, or reused, as a fastener for the Achcheargary Burn spacer-plate necklace and the set of six cannel coal buttons found in the Migdale hoard.

The sex associations of the various artefacts are as follows: where the sex of the associated human remains can reliably be established, it is mostly female. The set of six V-perforated buttons in the Migdale hoard could well have belonged to a male jacket, or else five of the buttons could be used in this way, with the larger sixth one used to fasten a cloak, since such button sets have been associated elsewhere with male burials, as at Rameldry Farm, Fife (Baker et al 2003). A very few associations of disc-bead necklaces with males have been recorded in Britain (as discussed in Sheridan 2015a). Among the sexed individuals associated with jet and jet-like objects in the Highland Region, the sex has been female, as shown in Table 6.9.

The Materials

The raw materials used for these Early Bronze Age artefacts range from Whitby jet to cannel coal, (oil) shale and possibly lignite. Cannel coal and shale outcrops can be found in Sutherland, particularly in the Jurassic deposits around Brora. Albertite, which outcrops at Strathpeffer, Easter Ross, may have been used to manufacture one or more of the Early Bronze Age beads found on Culbin Sands. Disc beads tend not to be made of jet, with but a few exceptions elsewhere in Britain (Sheridan 2015a), not least because they are easier to manufacture using laminar materials such as cannel coal and shale. With the V-perforated items, the Culduthel and Achcheargary Burn examples are of Whitby jet, while the button set from Migdale is of cannel coal or shale. The identifications and claimed identifications are presented in Table 6.9. Further research needs to be undertaken on identifying the source of the possibly lignitic material used to make the tiny disc beads in the Culduthel belt.

The use of jet declined after c 1800 BC in the Highland Region, possibly due to changes in the pattern of interregional contacts. The Middle Bronze Age use of jet-like material, including the manufacture of artefacts, is attested at the settlement at Lairg, where one bangle fragment of shale was found in a context dating to 1200–1000 BC. Other bangle fragments from Iron Age contexts were also found. A roughout of albertite, possibly for a bead, was found in a context dating to about 1500–1300 BC, and a roughout for a discoid bead or ring of cannel coal was found in a similarly-dated context. Other working debris in the form of a flake from a context dating to 1600–1400 BC were also found. The presence of the bangle fragment in a Middle Bronze Age context provides welcome confirmation that this artefact type was indeed being made at that period. The earliest evidence for the use of bangles made of jet-like material in Scotland comes from Bodsberry Hill, Elvanfoot, South Lanarkshire, where fragments were found in a context dated to the Early Bronze Age (Sheridan et al 1998).

There is only one other piece of evidence for the Middle Bronze Age use of jet-like materials: the toggle-like object of cannel coal found in a roundhouse at Rhiconich, Sutherland (MHG12143). This had been made by cutting down an annular object, possibly a bangle, and it may relate to the Middle Bronze Age period of occupation.

As with the Middle Bronze Age, just one Late Bronze Age artefact can be cited for the Highland Region: a bead with a slightly wedge-shaped profile, found at Cantraybruich and identified analytically as being of cannel coal (Sheridan 2000). This is the kind of bead that is found in some Late Bronze Age composite necklaces of amber and black material, such as the example from Balmashanner, Angus.

Table 6.9 summarises the confirmed examples of Bronze Age and possibly Chalcolithic finds of jet and jet-like artefacts in the Highland Region, including finds from Culbin Sands, since the Sands straddle the Highland and Moray boundary. Excluded from this table are finds where the Bronze Age date cannot be confirmed but could be at a later date; these comprise two beads from Littleferry Links (MHG11651; NMS X.BJ 2307–8); two abandoned roughouts for albertite beads found during topsoil stripping at Slackbuie, Inverness (EHG3271; Sheridan 2012a); and several beads from Culbin Sands in Nairn Museum and Dunrobin Castle Museum. The Iron Age finds from Lairg settlement are also excluded.

Disc-bead necklaceYarhouse (South Yarrows North), Caithness‘Lignite’Possibly Chalcolithic or else EBA. Cist inside chamber of passage tomb. 70 tiny disc beads found, of which 10 are in NMS (NMS X.EO 132) and the rest are in the Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford (but labelled there as ‘70 beads’). Associated with ‘layer of white ashes’ (?cremated remains) and a vessel, possibly an All Over Cord-decorated Beaker; ‘ashes’ and pot lost. The beads are described as lying ‘as if threaded’MHG2229; Anderson 1868, 498; 1886, 240; Davidson and Henshall 1991, 141
Disc-bead necklace (unfinished)Dunrobin Park, Sutherland‘Shale’Chalcolithic or EBA. Cist, with contracted skeleton of young adult female, short-necked Beaker, flint blade, flint scraper, pointed item of flint and 18 beach pebbles. 118 disc beads, of which only six are perforated. Beads not recorded as being in Dunrobin Castle Museum. Current location unknownMHG10900
Disc-bead necklaceDalmore, near Alness, Easter Ross‘A jet-like mineral’, thought by Jolly to be albertiteEBA Cist, presumably associated with unburnt human remains. 50 disc beads, graded in size. Lost. Associated with flint knife and incomplete wristguardMHG6311; Jolly and Aitken 1879, 255, fig 3; Anderson 1886, 50–1
Disc-bead necklaceCarn Liath, Golspie‘Shale’EBA cist, with Food Vessel found in 1980s excavation. No further details and current location unknownMHG10872
Disc beads and discoidal bead, probably from a disc-bead necklaceLairg, Achinduich burial cairn 1, SutherlandDisc beads: cannel coal*; discoidal bead: probably lower-quality cannel coal*EBA. Grave under cairn. 12 disc beads of which ten, plus the discoidal bead, were found in a Food Vessel in pit under cairn 1Sheridan et al 1998
Disc- and fusiform-bead necklaceEmbo, SutherlandJet and cannel coal*EBA cist inserted into south chamber of Neolithic double passage tomb. Associated with unburnt bones of adult female and Food Vessel. Remains of newborn baby and flint knife may also have been associated. MHG11630; Henshall and Taylor 1957; Henshall and Wallace 1963; Henshall and Ritchie 1995
Necklace: NMS X.EQ 614, 615, 631
Disc- and fusiform-bead belt with V-perforated boat-shaped fastenerCulduthel, InvernessJet* fastener; other components probably a mixture of cannel coal and possibly lignite but jet cannot be ruled out for the larger of the disc beads*EBA cist with contracted female skeleton, copper alloy awl and pitchstone flake. Belt: NMS X.EQ 270. Comprises boat-shaped fastener, six ‘normal-sized’ disc beads, numerous tiny disc beads (513 when found) and 18 fusiform beads, along with fragments of further beads. Human remains dated to 2200–1970 cal BCMHG3782; Low 1929; Parker Pearson et al 2019.
Disc beadsMorayston (Moraytown), Dalcross, Inverness-shire‘Jet’EBA cist with contracted skeleton. Three disc beads, lostMHG2908
Spacer-plate necklaceTorr Sgriobhaidh, Balblair, Edderton, Easter RossJet* and cannel coal*  EBA cist under cairn. Associated with flint knife. Necklace comprises two terminal plates (of which one is incomplete), three spacer plates and 58 ½ fusiform beads. The plates come from at least two, probably three ‘parent’ necklaces. MHG41004
Necklace: NMS X.2011.2.1 (formerly NMS Q.L.1951.1)
Spacer-plate necklace and parts of two spacer-plate braceletsNear Old House of Assynt, Mains of Assynt, Evanton, Easter Ross‘Jet’, ID confirmed macroscopically for most if not all componentsEBA cist associated with unburnt skeletal remains and a pot, possibly a Beaker/Food Vessel hybrid. Pot lost. Necklace components present: two terminal plates (of which one is incomplete), one spacer plate, 23 fusiform beads including three are made from cut-down spacer plates. Bracelets: two terminal plates in each. Each would have been a two-strand bracelet. MHG8968
Necklace: NMS X.EQ 84
Spacer-plate necklace with V-perforated button as a fastenerAchcheargary Burn, Strathnaver (aka Dalmor), SutherlandJet* and cannel coal*EBA cist, one of two under a cairn, destroyed. Necklace parts found through riddling upcast. Comprises: fastener (V-perforated button), two terminal plates, four spacer plates and 66 fusiform beads. MHG11079; Stevenson 1939
Necklace: NMS X.FN 176
Spacer-plate necklaceTorrish, SutherlandCannel coal* and probably jet*EBA cist under small mound. Associated with a chert point and flint flake. Comprises one terminal plate, five spacer plates (originating from more than 1  necklace) and 57 fusiform beads (when found 55 survive). . Three beads analysed by NMS project and found to be cannel coal. Would need to analyse rest of necklace to check whether any components are of jet. It is likely that two of the spacer plates, the undecorated ones, are of jetMHG9860
In Dunrobin Castle Museum (DCM 1870.7; lithics are DCM 1870.8 and 9)
Spacer-plate necklaceNorth Sutor, Easter Ross‘Jet’Probably EBA. Antiquarian find (1820–23). Reportedly found in a ‘crude burial urn’ (type unspecified and not necessarily a cinerary urn). One of two found in sand; the other, which appears to have been a cinerary urn, contained cremated human remains. One complete spacer plate and fragments of up to three others, plus two fragments of a fusiform bead that are likely to be from North Sutor, are in Dunrobin Castle Museum. Recorded by Audrey Henshall as a note at the beginning of her DCM Inventory and at the end of her entry on the Torrish necklaceMHG8555; Miller 1835, 81; Henshall 1966
Dunrobin Castle Museum (DCM ARC 349)
Terminal plate from spacer-plate necklace, fusiform beads, disc beadsCulbin Sands, MorayJet*, cannel coal*, possibly also albertite*EBA. Terminal plate fusiform bead, crudely shaped fusiform bead, squat fusiform bead and five disc beads. All in NMS X.BI (Culbin Sands) collection. One fragment of fusiform bead reportedly in Falconer Museum, Forres. Other beads (at least 13 in Nairn Museum, not located, plus at least one in Dunrobin Museum) not included here as not verified as being of BA type(s)All in NMS X.BI (Culbin Sands) collection. NMS X.BI 28,401
Fusiform beadsCladh Aindreis, LochaberJet*EBA. 3 fusiform beads in cist under a kerbed cairn, with bronze awl and the remains of two individuals. One dated to 1771–1616 cal BC. a fourth fusiform bead was found on the base of the cairn. Sex of the deceased could not be determined. Finds have not yet been allocated through TTSheridan 2017b, fig 12.6.8; forthcoming; Phil Richardson and Oliver Harris pers comm
Two fusiform beadsLearable (Lierabol) Hill, Kildonan, Sutherland‘Jet’EBA cist, with cremated human remains and ‘pieces of crude pottery’, lostMHG9513; RCAHMS 1993a, fig 1
Beads (type unspecified)Rovie Farm, Rogart, Sutherland‘Shale’Probably EBA. Antiquarian account of ‘some cists containing skeletons and some shale beads’ found ‘a few years’ before 1870, lostMHG10612
Six V-perforated buttonsMigdale, SutherlandCannel coal or shale*EBA hoardMHG10007; Case study The Migdale hoard
Fragment of bangle, bangle-making debris including roughoutsLairg, SutherlandCannel coal* and shale*, bead roughout albertite*MBA and LBA. Roughout for globular or biconical bead and roughout for discoid bead or ringSheridan et al 1998
Toggle-like objectRhiconich, SutherlandCannel coal*Possibly MBA. Looks to have been made by re-working a pre-existing artefact, annular in shape. Dates of 1609–1319 cal BC, 1731–1292 cal BC and 1620–1311 cal BC obtained for construction of the circular houseMHG12143 Sheridan 1997; Donnelly et al 1997[SA34] 
BeadCantraybruich, Inverness-shireCannel coal*Possibly Late Bronze Age. Slightly wedge-shaped in profile. Fieldwalking findMHG61783; Sheridan 2000
Table 6.9 Chalcolithic(?) and Bronze Age jet and jet-like objects from the Highland Region
The asterisk indicates results of analysis/other identification by the National Museums Scotland project. Where the material is given in quotes, this indicates that it has not yet been confirmed by analysis (or cannot be determined in the case of lost items)
All dates cal BC at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

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