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Viking Beads and Necklaces

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I am a glass artist, and I would like to know more about Viking beads and necklaces.

(signed) Flameworker

Gentle Reader:

A tenth century Arab once said that the Vikings would "go to any length to get hold of colored beads" (Wernick, 94). Certainly colored beads of flameworked glass from Birka; native amber and jet; carnelian and silver imported from India and Iran via Islamic and Rus traders; rock crystal; garnet; amethyst; gold, and bronze and many other types of beads were highly prized by the Scandinavians.

10th century Viking Glass and Amber Necklace

Beads (along with pottery, nails and knives) are the single most common items found in pre-Christian Viking graves. However, since making beads by hand is extremely labor-intensive, beads were valuable and expensive. Beads were passed down to one's younger relatives, gathered up during raids, and eagerly purchased at the great market towns such as Haithabu (Hedeby).

10th century Viking Glass and Rock Crystal Necklace

Beads as Amulets

Flameworked Beads and Millefiori

Viking Age Flameworked Beads

The original color of these beads would have been much more brilliant when they were new. Weathering, surface crazing, and chemical changes in the glass over the centuries has faded the original bright colors and given the surface a powdery effect.   Plain solid-color, glass beads, gold foiled beads, and complex millefiori beads are all represented here.

Steps in creating a flameworked bead.

Viking Age Millefirori Beads

Although popular myth would have it that millefiori was an almost post-Renaissance invention of the Venetians, mosaic glass beads were in use from antiquity onwards. Shown here is a necklace manufactured in Scandinavia ca. 800 to 1000 A.D. (Dubin, 75).

The Glass Furnace

Jet "Gripping Bears" Bead
Beads made of jet, amber, and rock crystal have been interpreted at times as amulets by modern investigators. In Norwegian graves, jet beads tend to appear singly, emphasizing the possibility of their use as an amulet. Jet was considered by the Vikings to be a form of amber, and hence sacred to Freyja. Another find of jet bead was associated with a carved jet serpent amulet. Sometimes jet finger or arm rings are also found, and there are three "gripping beasts" of jet that have sometimes been considered to be amulets.

Amber Amulets Including Thórr's Hammer's, axes, and other symbolic items.
In Sweden, single pieces of amber are found, and are sometimes assumed to be amulets, because even when there are a large number of beads present in the find, there will be only the one piece of amber. In Gotland, small grave amulets are sometimes found: men's graves yield amber axes and adzes, possibly associated with Thórr, while women's graves may have amber tokens depicting a vulva, which is probably associated with fertility and Freyja. These grave amulets were not meant to be worn, and are usually found at the foot of the grave.
Some rock crystal pendants and "crystal balls" of rock crystal are occasionally interpreted as amulets. The rock crystal pendants are probably expensive ornaments, while the globes of rock crystal may in fact represent amulets.

Reconstructed Glass Furnace for Flameworking
"Flameworking" is actually a process of shaping and ornamenting glass by manipulating it directly in a heat source. The Viking Age flameworker would have used a small glass furnace such as this reconstruction from Ribe, Denmark. The glass would have been introduced to the furnace through the holes in the side, while the bellows at the bottom served to keep the hardwood charcoal fire fire hot enough to soften and melt glass.

Modern flameworked beads are usually created using a torch flame,although many traditional glassworkers continue to use glass furnaces much like the oneshown here.

Making Glass and Preparing Rods

Glass debris found in a Viking Age glass-worker's shop in Ribe, Denmark.
The first step in creating glass beads is to create the glass. It is thought that most glass was probably imported from the continent. Broken glass items would be recycled by the glass-worker, and some glass was made locally as well.

Creating Striped Glass Rod
Hot glass looks exactly like cold glass, so for safety's sake glassmakers would adhere the hot glass to a punt or metal wand. The glass could then be heated, shaped, and used for ornamentation without the artist needing to handle it directly.

Here white glass stripes are being added to a bolus of darker glass on a punt, preparatory to creating a striped rod for later beadmaking steps.

The Glass is Elongated into a Rod
After the stripes have been added, the hot glass is pulled with tweezers or pliers almost like taffy to make it longer and thinner, creating a glass rod that can be used directly to create beads.

Preparing the Mandrel

Mandrel Coated with White Clay Slip
The mandrel is the metal rod upon which the bead will be constructed. To keep the glass from adhering to the mandrel, the metal rod is first coated with a slip of clay (the white coating on the mandrel in the foreground). The glass can then be wound around the mandrel safely without permanently adhering to the metal rod underneath.

At the end of the process, the bead can be pulled off the rod and the clay slip inside the hole cleaned out with a brush or pick.

Winding Glass onto Mandrel

Winding Glass onto the Mandrel to Create a Bead

Viking Age Bead Still on Mandrel
To create the bead, the mandrel would be preheated, then a punt loaded with hot glass would be touched to the mandrel, and the mandrel rotated firmly away from the punt to create the body of the bead by winding the glass onto the mandrel. Once the body is wound on, the punt is pulled away from the mandrel, separating the glass on the punt from the new bead.

At this stage the bead may be uneven, but holding the bead in the furnace and rotating it gently allows the glass to soften further and melt into a spherical or oval shape. At this point, the glassworker has created a perfectly servicable glass bead, and one which may even show a fair amount or ornament, depending on the ornamentation of the source glass before winding on.

Ornamenting and Shaping the Bead

Once the basic bead has been formed, the glass worker can choose to further ornament the bead.

Eye Beads: "Eye" beads can be made by touching a very thin glass rod (stringer) to the surface of the bead to create a dot. Contrasting dots are often superimposed on the first dot to create a series of concentric dots that resemble an eye.

Glass Beads in Various Shapes
Tubular, Oval, Flat, or Square Beads: The shape of the bead can also be modified. While the glass is still hot but not liquid, it is pressed against a hard, heat-resistant, smooth surface, compressed between two "paddles", and so forth to create a variety of bead shapes.

Viking Age Combed Blue Glass "Melon" Beads Approx size 1 cm

Combed Glass Beads, 8th cent., Ribe, Denmark
Combed Beads: Another type of ornamentation is performed by dragging a metal tool through the soft glass. If the bead is not heated much after combing, the cuts in the glass produce a multilobed "melon" bead.

If the glass is striped or has had other surface decoration applied, the "combing" drags the ornamentation in the direction of the gouge. Combing an applied pattern could all go in one direction, or could alternate, one pull going from top to bottom while the next goes from bottom to top.

Elaborate chevron effects can be achieved by combing a striped bead (outside green beads), while a floral effect can be obtained by combing a bead with "dots" or "eyes" (center green bead).
Adding Glass to the Bead Surface: Small pieces of glass frit or slices of patterned glass mosaic canes (millefiori) can be added to the surface of the bead. These can either be placed on the bead surface using a tweezers or else the pieces can be arranged on a flat surface so that the still-soft bead may be rolled over the pieces, picking them up against the still-soft surface.

This type of added ornament can be heated so that it melts into the surface, forming a smooth finish, or left protruding from the surface to add additional texture and interest.

Gold and Silver Foiled Glass Beads
Foiled Glass Beads: One highly sophisticated glass bead ornamentation technique practiced by the Vikings was the addition of gold or silver foil to the bead, beneath a layer of clear glass. Such foiled beads closely simulated the appearance of metal beads.

Foiling is a difficult technique, since the foil is very thin and too much heat will badly oxidize the foil, or even burn it away completely. The core of the bead must be created and shaped, the foil applied, then the covering layer of clear glass overlaid completely covering the foil, all without burning the foil.  The results are, however, very beautiful.

Annealing the Bead

Annealing Glass for New Beads and Annealing Completed Beads
This illustration shows an annealing pan, set near hot coals, yet never allowed to become hot enough to melt the glass.

Glass for new beads is preheated in the annealing pan to slowly warm it closer to the heat of the furnace. The greater the temperature differential between the new glass and the heat of the furnace, the more likely the glass is to suffer thermal shock, causing sudden uneven expansion of portions of the glass structure that in turn cause the glass to shatter, crack or loose small chips.

The finished beads are likewise annealed, allowing them to cool slowly over a long period of time, again to avoid thermal shock and to prevent the bead from cracking or shattering.

Treasure Necklaces

A Necklace Worthy of a Dragon's Hoard

The 9th cent. A.D. necklace from the hoard from Hon in Norway shown here comes from an extremely rare type of hoard... most caches of valuables were silver. This treasure necklace was found with a hoard consisting entirely of gold, except for the necklace. The people who concealed the riches shown here obviously set a very high store on the treasure necklace that was included, reckoning it worthy to join the golden treasure.

The Hon treasure necklace contains beads of simple colored glass, carnelian beads, three or four flameworked "combed" beads, eye beads, foiled glass beads, beads with trailed decoration, as well as at least one mosaic cane (millefiori) bead. There are three types of pendants: circular pendants made of one or more beads strung on a circle of wire, a golden Arabic coin which has a soldered-on loop for hanging, plus seven gold book mounts which likewise have had hanging loops attached. The large pendant of white beads probably served as a central focal point, leaving the golden book mounts spaced fairly evenly around the diameter if the necklace. There is no effort to symmetrically place matching beads equal distances away from the focal point. Rather beads are matched in pairs by size, shape, and tone (light or dark) not only in relation to the focal point, but so that they likewise balance beads 180° around the diameter of the necklace.

Constructing a Treasure Necklace

It was unusual and difficult, however, to manage to acquire enough matched beads to make an entire necklace. Furthermore, the Vikings prized a mixture of colors. Thus it was natural to collect many types of beads, along with items converted to serve as beads and pendants (coins from other lands, book mounts prized from the covers of illuminated Celtic gospels by raiders, odd pieces of European jewelry and even hack silver) and to use these to make treasure necklaces.

At first glance, a treasure necklace may seem to be a jumble of random beads with no order or design. However, if one carefully examines the treasure necklaces recovered from graves, it soon becomes apparent that there are rules for their construction1 .

  1. First, all large and unusual items such as pendants and special beads are arranged at even intervals around a circle.

  2. If more pendants are desired, take a loop of wire and string two or more beads upon it, then cross the ends and twist them to form a "stalk", and finally the ends are wrapped around a rod at right angles to the "stalk" to provide a hole with which the new pendant may be strung.

  3. Next, begin picking up pairs of beads that are similar in size, shape, and tone (dark or light). Place these 180 apart across the circle.

  4. Continue placing bead pairs until the spaces between the pendants has been filled. Sometimes a short pattern balanced upon a pendant will be used to help emphasize the pendant.

  5. Finally, pick a point and begin stringing the necklace in the order in which the elements were laid out.

This is simple in conception, but can be difficult for those who have a hard time abandoning modern ideas about necklace construction and symmetry. The value of using this technique to create a treasure necklace today is that you may preserve very special items which have meaning for you within it, rather like a modern charm bracelet. It is very worthwhile to experiment with this technique.

Crystal and Carnelian Treasure Necklace

This is a simple treasure necklace made with a limited variety of beads, but incorporating special beads and metal ornaments. There are mostly red carnelian and white crystal beads, but green glass beads are also used, as well as a small silver pendant, a coiled bronze snake, a round bronze ornament, an oblong bronze English book mount, as well as a stirrup-shaped Khazar ornament that originated near the lower Volga. ca. late 9th cent. A.D. (Wernick, 94).

Modern Reproductions of Viking Age Glass Beads
created by Mistress Agnes of Whitby (Cami Ruh Clemo)

Modern Reconstructions of Viking Age Beads


  • Allen, Jamey D. "The Nordic Glass Bead Seminar: A Review". The Bead Forum 23 (1993) pp. 4-10.

  • Arrhenius, "Ein amethystanhanger in Haithabu," Berichte uber die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 12. Neumunster: 1978.

  • Astrup, Evabeth and Arnfinn Andersen. "A Study of Metal Foiled Glass beads from the Viking period." Acta Archaeologica 58 (1987) pp. 222-228.

  • Bencard, M. "Das Handwerk der Winkingerzeit in Ribe (Ripen)". Das Handwerk in vor- und frühgescichtlicher Zeit. Ein Ubersicht. Teil II. 1983.

  • Blindheim, C. "En amulet av rav." Universitets Oldsaksamling Arbok 1958-59. Oslo: 1959.

  • Blindheim, CH., B. Heyerdahl-Larsen and R.L. Tollnes. Kaupang-funnene, Vol. I. Nordiske Oldfunn XI. Oslo: Universitets Oldsaksamling. 1981.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Boone, G.C. "Gold in Glass Beads from the Ancient World." Britannia 9. 1977.

  • Brill, R.H. "Ancient Glass." Scientific American 209:5. 1963.

  • Callmer, Johan. Trade Beads and Bead Trade in Scandinavia ca. 800 - 1000 AD. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia 4th Series, No. 11. Lund: Munksgaard. 1977. ISBN 3774913757.

  • Callmer, Johan and Julian Henderson. "Glassworking at Ahus, South Sweden [Skane, 8th century AD]" Labortaiv Arkeologi 5 (1991) pp. 143-154.

  • Francis, Peter, Jr. "Bloodstone, Agate and Carnelian." The Bead Forum 22 (1993) pp. 16-20.

  • Fuglesang, Signe Horn. "Viking and Medieval Amulets in Scandinavia." Fornvannen 84 (1989), pp. 15-25.

  • Graslund, A.S. "Barn i Birka." Tor 15 (1972).

  • Hirst, S.M. and L. Biek. "Investigation of a Glass Bead Assemblage from an Anglo-Saxon Cemetary Near York." Révue d'Archeometrie, Supplement. 1981.

  • Hougen, E.K. Glassmaterialet fra Kaupang. Viking. 1969.

  • Jankuhn, H. Haithabu: Ein Handelsplatz der Wikingerzeit. Vol. 8. Neumünster: Auflage. 1986.

  • Karklins, Karlis. "Beads from Iron Age Hoardes in Latvia." The Bead Forum 6 (1985) pp. 9-11

  • Lundström, A. "Bead Making in Scandinavia in the Early Middle Ages." Early Medieval Studies 9, Antivariskt Arkiv 61. 1976.

  • Lundström, A. Excavations at Helgö VII: Glass, Iron, Clay. A. Lundström and H. CLarke, eds. Stockholm. 1981.

  • Meaney, Audrey L. Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones. British Archaeological Reports Series 96. Oxford: 1981.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Peterson, J. "British Antiquities of the Viking Period, Found in Norway." Viking Antiquities 5. ed. Hakon Shetelig. Oslo: 1940.

  • Shetelig, H. "Smyker af jet i norsk vikingfunn." Bergens Museum Arbok 1944. Historisk-antikvarisk rekke No. 1 (1944).

  • Stenberger, M. Die Schatzfunde Gotlands der Wikingerzeit 1. Lund: 1958.

  • Tratzig, Gustaf. "Beads Made of Cowrie Shells from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean Found on Gotland." Trade and Exchange in Prehistory: Studies in Honor of Berte Stjernquist. eds. Birgitta Hårdh et al.. Lund: Lunds universitets historiska museum. 1988. pp. 287-294.

  • Wernick, Robert. The Vikings. The Seafarers. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books. 1979.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Wilson, David M. The Vikings and their Origins. New York:A&W Visual Library. 1980.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Dubin, Lois S. The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1987.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Notes

     01 Thanks to Lady Leidre Leidolfsdottir for working out the method of constructing Viking "random bead" treasure necklaces.

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