Jewellery and Dress Accessories

No trace of any clothing of Neolithic date survives in Highland Region, and items of jewellery and dress accessories are extremely rare, in contrast to Late Neolithic Orkney, where a plethora of bead and pendant jewellery and pins of various sizes, including ostentatious large examples of bone (sometimes whalebone) and marine ivory, almost certainly used to fasten garments, have been found.

Despite their rarity, the items of jewellery and the dress accessory that are known from the Region are of considerable importance, since three of these – the jet ‘monster bead’ from Strathglebe, the probable monster bead fragment of jet-like material from Fendom Sands near Tain and the jet belt slider from ‘Skye’ – are of object types with a wide distribution in Britain and they remind us of the extensive networks of contacts over which ideas and fashions circulated during the Neolithic period. The list of Highland Region finds is as follows:

  • From Strathglebe chamber tomb, Skye (MHG5316):
    • An Early to Middle Neolithic ‘monster bead’ of Whitby jet (Fig. 5.63.1);
    • Two perforated limpet shells that may have been worn as a necklace (Fig. 5.63.2);
    • A chunky bead made from marine ivory (Fig. 5.63.3)
  • A fragment of a possible ‘monster bead’ of jet-like material from Fendom Sands (MHG60225), in the NMS collections
  • A Middle Neolithic belt slider, probably of Whitby jet, from an unknown location in Skye (MHG61232) (Figs. 5.64, 5.65)
  • Two abandoned roughouts for beads (plus chips from the working process) of albertite, from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (EHG3271; Sheridan 2012a, fig. 5.1).
Figure 5.63: Jewellery found in Strathglebe chamber tomb, Skye: 1. Jet ‘monster bead’; 2. Perforated limpet shells; 3. Marine ivory bead. ©Alison Sheridan

Figure 5.64: Belt slider, probably of jet, from Skye (top), shown with jet belt slider from Beacharra Clyde cairn, Argyll and Bute (bottom). From Clarke et al 1985 (where the caption has the findspots in the wrong order). ©Trustees of NMS

Fig. 5.65 Entry in the 1785 list of the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland recording the slider: “230 A clasp slider for the end [sic] of a belt of a black glossy substance like jet, 3 inches in length, marked 253. Presented by the Rev. [illegible – looks like N but could be Dr] Macqueen”. The 1892 Catalogue of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland makes it clear that it was presented by the Reverend Donald Macqueen. ©Society of Antiquaries of Scotland/Trustees of NMS

The beads from Strathglebe chamber tomb are currently being studied by Alison Sheridan, who is co-ordinating the post-excavation work on all the finds from this site. The perforated limpet shells and the marine ivory bead attest to the exploitation of marine resources, which will have been available c. 4 km from the monument. 

The elliptical, flattish ‘monster bead’ of jet from Strathglebe (Fig. 5.63.1) measures 47.8 x c.26 x c.14.5 mm. It was found with a deposit of unburnt human bones and a blade of baked mudstone, in a pit cut down into the body of the cairn that enveloped the chamber (Wildgoose and Kozikowski 2018, 6). The ends of the longitudinal perforation are heavily worn, indicating that the bead must have been worn for some time before burial. The identification of the material as jet has been achieved through compositional analysis using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry by Lore Troalen of NMS and by macro- and microscopic examination by Alison Sheridan. Even though jet is known to outcrop on Skye, near Holm (Jurassic, Palaeogene volcanic districts of Scotland – Earthwise (bgs.ac.uk), it is far more likely that the jet originated in the Whitby area of Yorkshire since Skye jet tends not to occur in pieces large enough to make this bead. The jet is of a kind that cracks upon drying. The associated bone is due to be radiocarbon-dated; the one existing date for human bone from elsewhere in this monument (3495–3104 cal BC, OxA-37513, 4569±35 BP: Knight et al 2020, 166) need not be contemporary with the bead.

‘Monster beads’ of jet and of mostly similar-looking materials are widespread, if rare, in Britain, with around 33 examples known; the distribution extends from as far north as Fendom Sands to as far south as Hembury in Devon. (See Sheridan 2007b for a discussion and listing.) Arguably the best-known examples are a necklace comprising a dozen such beads of jet plus four beads made from amber pebbles, found in a tumulus along with a blade-polished flint axehead at Greenbrae, near Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire (Fig. 5.66); these may well have come from a grave, and both the necklace and the axehead will have been imported from Yorkshire. Other Scottish examples of ‘monster beads’ are known from Pitlethie Road, Leuchars, Fife (Sheridan 2007b), Watch Hill, Loch Skene, Dumfries and Galloway; Pencaitland parish, East Lothian; and ‘Scotland, no location’. The available dating evidence for monster beads as an artefact type suggests a currency within the c. 3800 BC – 3500 BC date bracket (and note that the Greenbrae find need not date to the second half of the fourth millennium, as suggested elsewhere [ibid, 16]; the type of flint axehead associated with that necklace is not well dated). The date that is due to be obtained for the human remains associated with the Strathglebe example will make an important contribution to the dating of this artefact type. The presence of this bead at Strathglebe indicates that its wearer was ‘plugged in’ to an extensive network of contacts, and participated in the ‘vocabulary of esteem’ of the time: this will have been a rare and precious status symbol, and it suggests that society was in some way socially differentiated.

Figure 5.66: Necklace of Whitby jet ‘monster beads’ and amber beads, plus associated flint axehead, found at Greenbrae, Aberdeenshire. From Clarke et al 1985; ©Trustees of NMS

The belt slider from Skye (Fig. 5.64; Wilson 1851, 300; 1863, vol 1, 441, fig. 82; Thurnam 1872, 513 n.9; McInnes 1968, 140, 144, fig. 29.13; Clarke et al 1985, 238), which is probably of jet (and has been compositionally analysed by Mary Davis), is another rare type of precious artefact with a wide distribution in Britain (Fig. 5.67; Sheridan 2012b). Thirty-one examples are known, including a fine example from a Clyde cairn at Beacharra in Argyll and Bute (Fig. 5.64), and these seem to be a Middle Neolithic object, in use between c. 3350 BC and 2900 BC (and probably within a narrower time frame than that; the radiocarbon dates lie in a calibration curve plateau). Only one example (from Linch Hill, Oxfordshire) appears to be earlier than that, at 3640–3380 cal BC (ibid).

The example from Skye is an old find, presented to the newly-formed Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by the antiquary Reverend Donald Macqueen (c. 1715–1785), Presbyterian minister of Kilmuir, in 1784 (according to the 1892 Catalogue of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland). David Clarke correctly pointed out (Clarke et al 1985, 238) that the earliest known reference to this object, in the 1785 list of objects held by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, makes no reference to the item having been found in Skye (Fig. 5.65. Nevertheless, by the time Daniel Wilson wrote his The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland in 1851, Skye is clearly mentioned as the findspot: ‘One example [of a belt slider] was found in the Isle of Skye, and presented to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries in 1782’ (Wilson 1851, 300; note that the 1892 Catalogue gives the date 1784). Almost all of the subsequent references to this object repeat the ‘Skye’ provenance, and since Reverend Donald Macqueen lived on Skye and is known to have collected artefacts found on the island, it seems highly probable that the slider was indeed found there.

Reverend Macqueen was a well-known antiquary, described as ‘probably the best known and most distinguished minister in the Highlands in his time’ (https://edition.curioustravellers.ac.uk/pages/hits.html?searchkey=pe0069), who corresponded regularly with Thomas Pennant, and was mentioned in Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. He was also mentioned in Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), having met Johnson during his visit to the Hebrides in the late summer and autumn of 1773. In a letter to Pennant dated 18 August 1774, Macqueen wrote: ‘I shall Enquire after the Trinkets you recommend but I wish you had Spoke of them Last year having then been master of Some Uncommon things’ (Curious Travellers); whether the ‘Uncommon things’ included the slider is unclear.

Figure 5.67: Distribution of belt sliders of jet and materials resembling jet, plus of other stone. From Sheridan 2012b; since this was published, a couple of additional examples from England have come to light. ©Alison Sheridan

As for the albertite bead roughouts and working debris from the Lower Slackbuie ASDA site (EHG3271), these were found during topsoil stripping, so a Neolithic date cannot be guaranteed, although they were from the palaeochannel area where a large amount of Grooved Ware was found, and so they could conceivably be of Late Neolithic date. They are flat on two faces and look to have been destined to be circular in plan. The albertite is likely to have originated around Strathpeffer.

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