Investigating Jet and Jet-Like Artefacts from Prehistoric Scotland: The National Museums of Scotland Project

By Sheridan, Alison; Davis, Mary et al. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Investigating Jet and Jet-Like Artefacts from Prehistoric Scotland: The National Museums of Scotland Project


Sheridan, Alison, Davis, Mary, Clark, Iain, Redvers-Jones, Hal, Antiquity


Introduction

The black spacer plate necklaces and bracelets of the Early Bronze Age (FIGURE 1) are among the most technically accomplished prestige items of this period in Britain and Ireland. There has been much debate over the years as to whether these artefacts and other prehistoric black jewellery and dress accessories are the product of specialist jetworkers based around Whitby in North Yorkshire--Britain's only significant source of jet. As early as 1916, for example, Callander was arguing that the Scottish finds had been made using locally available materials--cannel coal, shale and lignite--rather than Whitby jet. There has also been much confusion over the identification of these various materials. Furthermore, the conservation of newly discovered jet and jet-like artefacts can be problematical, and the correct identification of raw material is important in determining the best method of treatment.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The advent of non-destructive methods of compositional analysis (e.g. Bussell et al. 1982; Pollard et al. 1991; Hunter et al. 1993) has facilitated raw material identification; and it was with the aim of clarifying the material and provenance of some of the Scottish finds that one of us (MD) undertook analysis in 1990 (Davis 1990). This work then developed into a long-term National Museums of Scotland research programme, focusing on all pre-Iron Age artefacts of jet and jet-like materials from Scotland.

It aims to:

1 document them in a fully-illustrated corpus;

2 identify raw materials and provenance, and hence patterns of movement;

3 elucidate the processes, technology and organization of their manufacture; and

4 understand their use and significance.

To date around 170 Scottish artefacts (including part or all of 27 spacer plate necklaces and bracelets--half of all the Scottish examples) have been analysed. Indeed, the scope of the project has expanded, to cover the Welsh material (Sheridan & Davis 1998) and some English finds (e.g. Sheridan & Davis 1994; Davis forthcoming). This paper will focus, however, on the Scottish material. As space is limited, full bibliographic details of the artefacts discussed here will not be given; these are available from the authors.

The use of jet and jet-like artefacts in Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland

The earliest use of jet and similar materials in Scotland--as elsewhere in Britain--dates to the first half of the 4th millennium BC, with the use of elliptical beads, some of considerable size (Smith 1974). A set of 12 of these was found, with four amber beads and an edge-polished flint axehead, at Greenbrae, Aberdeenshire (FIGURE 2). Four or possibly five other examples are known from Scotland. The other Neolithic artefact type to note here is the belt slider, of which there are eight Scottish examples. By analogy with the one found in a male high-status grave at Whitegrounds, North Yorkshire (Brewster 1984), this artefact type should date to the second half of the 4th millennium BC. Although most of these Scottish beads and sliders have been stray finds, at least one--the slider from the chamber tomb at Beacharra, Argyll & Bute (FIGURE 3)--is likely to be from a funerary context.

[FIGURES 2-3 OMITTED]

There appears to have been a marked increase in the use of jet and jet-like materials, particularly as grave goods, during the last few centuries of the 3rd millennium BC. In Britain as a whole, the earliest of these Copper/Bronze Age items are some necklaces with tiny disc beads, as at Chilbolton, Hampshire (see Sheridan forthcoming for discussion). In Scotland the paucity of dated specimens makes it hard to establish a relative chronology for the appearance of the various artefact types, but it is clear that V-perforated buttons (FIGURE 4) were in use from at least as early as c. 2100 BC (at Migdale, Highland: Sheridan et al. …

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