To Bead or not to Bead…

I have always loved beads, particularly Roman to Viking-age beads, but there are a couple of problems with them. As many interested in Costume and dress know, all too often they are associated with female dress; which means I rarely get to wear any, and secondly the making of them has always seemed a dark art to me, the way more complex crafts often do.

Whilst I can’t do anything about the former, I can do something about that latter, so I booked some tuition time at the excellent Tillerman Beads with my wife and some friends. Mike and Su from Tillerman are known to pretty much everyone in Living History and Reenactment, and their reproduction beads are second to none. The research and experimentation that goes into Mikes beads is superb, and his understanding of how to recreate the varying forms and techniques, gives a phenomenal insight into the craft of bead making in the past. Indeed I have consulted his expertise in manufacturing on some archaeological finds I have worked on (you won’t find excess references to unnecessary marvering in my reports!). We were very lucky to have such a talent and resource to teach us, and as an ex-teacher, his tutelage was excellent too; my respect and thanks to them are considerable.

We all had an enjoyable day and learned an awful lot, I can recommend it to anyone interested in crafts, and or history. Here are a few pictures of the work and progress I made throughout the day.


The workstation


The first few beads I produced


One of the first usable beads I managed to produce!


The Mk II with some trail in a coral colour

Finally Mike demonstrated how to make a unique kind of Hiberno-Norse bead, and are made in blue and white glass with occasional yellow dot decoration. They are primarily found in Dublin and may have been made there, but they also found in smaller numbers throughout the British Isles.  These beads are really something special and I had to have a go. I was very pleased with the end result, and whilst still some way off Mikes beads, and the originals, I was very encouraged after a few hours to keep persevering in future. As a result, I have ordered some bead making equipment and will be practicing some more as it is a skill I would love to master.


My first Hiberno-Norse bead

Hiberno-Norse beads are somewhat of an odditity in that they are quite a distinct design and colour palette. Indeed, so similar are many, that it is tought that they may well be from the same artist and/or their apprentices/offspring. There are some variants that seem to be stylistically a bit different, or perhaps cruder or in different glass, and these may well be copies by other artists, hoping to emulate these sought after items. They could also perhaps be variations by apprentices or offspring too. As mentioned above, they are primarily found in Dublin, alongside some arm rings, very similar to roman style ones, in the same colour scheme. In addition, some of the ‘beads’ have multiple holes, and I suspect they may be strung together as part of more complex bracelets or necklaces (much like the romans did with segmented jet bracelets), or perhaps even some form of dividers for multiple swags of beads. They could even be decorations or guides for leather or cloth thongs on clothing or pouches.


The Hiberno-Norse ‘bracelet’ beads with two holes from the National Museum of Ireland


The Hiberno-Norse beads in the National Museum of Ireland


Arm-ring fragments in the Hiberno-Norse colours and style from the National Museum of Ireland


The beads on Display in Dublin


Hiberno-Norse style beads, mixed in with other glass and amber beads in the National Museum of Ireland

This bead style has also been found at other Viking-age graves and sites, such as Walmgate in York, Moan on Orkney, The recent Galloway hoard (although everyone is too interested in the silver to talk about the awesome beads!), and other parts of Scotland to name but a few. There are also these examples from the British Museum.


Hiberno-Norse beads, arm-ring fragment, and another ‘bracelet’ bead with three holes in the British Museum. The lower right example seems to be fo a different glass, and quality, and may point to the differences in manufacture, artist, or origin indicated above.

It may seem like trying to master these as a starting point is jumping in at the deep end, but it is always the way I have learned arts and crafts I enjoy. Whether it be it wood carving, bone working, metal work, guitar playing, a real challenge has always proved to bring out the best in me, so there is probably little point changing now; wish me luck!

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