Early Bronze Age Lead - a Unique Necklace from Southeast Scotland

By Hunter, Fraser; Davis, Mary | Antiquity, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Early Bronze Age Lead - a Unique Necklace from Southeast Scotland


Hunter, Fraser, Davis, Mary, Antiquity


Excavation of an Early Bronze Age cist cemetery at West Water Reservoir, Peeblesshire, has uncovered a unique two-strand necklace, with one stripes of cannel coal disc beads and another of lead beads, buried around the neck of a young child. This is the earliest evidence for the use of metallic lead in Britain and Ireland.

The site

Low water levels in the summer of 1992 revealed an Early Bronze Age. (EBA) cist cemetery on a small hillock, now an island, in West Water Reservoir, near West Linton, Peeblesshire. The site lies at an altitude of 325m on the east side of the Pentland Hills. Severe water erosion had stripped large amounts of soil from most of the hillock, exposing seven cists. Five of the cists were well-built, each with a crouched inhumation (of which only the tooth enamel survived), while one also held a cremation; the other two, less well-constructed, had been extensively damaged. Grave goods included Food Vessels, flint tools, a bronze awl,bone beads, and the necklace. Sherds from at least two Beakers were found in a small pit surviving in an uneroded area. Further erosion over the winter exposed a small well-built cist and a larger, more roughly-constructed one, both with cremations (Hunter 1993; 1994).

Unfortunately no material was recovered from the inhumations which could be reliably 14C-dated. However, radiocarbon dates for Food Vessel burials from East/Central Scotland (Cowie & Ritchie 1991), and for a disc-and-fusiform bead 'jet' necklace from Almondbank, Perthshire (DES 1975, 40), suggest a likely bracket of c. 2100-1600 BC for the West Water cist burials.

The necklace

Despite disturbance by treasure-hunters, cist 3 was found to contain an intact necklace, which was lifted en bloc for laboratory investigation. X-raying revealed that this was not an ordinary single-strand disc bead necklace of jet-like material, as suspected in the field, but rather a two-strand necklace, the inner strand incorporating beads of a much denser substance (FIGURE 1). Upon microexcavation it emerged that the spatial arrangement of the beads on one side of the necklace was preserved almost undisturbed, whilst the other side had collapsed somewhat as the body decayed. The absence of a fastener and the spacing of the beads on the inner strand suggested the former presence of organic elements to the necklace.

No other grave goods were found in this cist. Examination of the surviving fragments of tooth enamel by Dorothy Lunt of the Glasgow Dental School indicated that they belonged to a child aged between 3 and 6 years.

The outer string

This comprises 181 disc beads, graded in diameter from 4 mm at the back to 10 mm at the front. Thickness varies from 0.75 to 2.25 mm, and does not correlate with diameter; few of the beads have truly parallel faces. The perforations are remarkably consistent in diameter, all falling within 0.25 mm of 2.5 mm (with some of this minor variation being caused by use-wear). The smoothness of the size graduation and the consistently central positioning of the perforations suggest that the necklace had been made by shaping a piece of raw material into a tapering rod, perforating it, then splitting off individual beads -- a method of manufacture suggested for other disc bead necklaces (Sheridan & Davis in preparation). The necklace had clearly seen use before burial: many of the holes show wear from the suspension string and some beads are chipped on their edges, while almost 25% of one bead had been broken away, although it was still usable.

The beads are most likely to be cannel coal. X-radiography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) demonstrated that they were neither jet nor shale (see Hunter et al. 1993 for discussion of the methodology), while the physical characteristics are consistent with cannel coal (Davis 1993: table 1). Further support was provided by examination of a flake under a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which showed no relic wood structure as is found with lignites. …

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