5.2.5 stone used for personal ornamentation

Beyond Orkney there is relatively little evidence for the use of jewellery or dress accessories, of any materials, in Neolithic Scotland. However, stone - in the form of jet, cannel coal and oil shale - does feature in the visually striking, so-called 'monster beads' of the Early to Middle Neolithic, and in the belt sliders of the Middle Neolithic; and there are also a few stone beads other than 'monster beads'.

Necklace of jet and amber beads, and associated flint axehead, from Greenbrae, Cruden, Aberdeenshire. © NMS

'Monster beads' are large, oval beads up to 115 mm long (in the case of a cannel coal example from Watch Hill, Skene, Dumfries and Galloway). Some have collared ends. They are of a type of jewellery that is widespread in Early to Middle Neolithic Britain, with examples known as far away as Devon; in Scotland the distribution extends as far north as Greenbrae, near Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, where an entire necklace was found in 1812 (Kenworthy 1977). The 12 beads here are of hard Whitby jet, and the necklace had also included four beads of amber, representing pieces that had been collected from the shore - probably in Yorkshire - and simply perforated. The necklace was accompanied by a flint axehead, and the whole assemblage is likely to have been imported from Yorkshire. The objects are reported to have been found in a mound, and it is possible that this had been a grave for a significant individual. Jet may well have been believed to have magical properties, as a stone that is warm, that floats, that can be burnt and that is electrostatic (Sheridan and Davis 2002). One relatively recent find is a bead from a house at Pitlethie Road, Leuchars, Fife, and its publication (Sheridan 2007) reviews the finds from Britain - although two others have since been found in England.

Beads and other ornaments made from materials other than jet are likely to have been made in Scotland, using locally-available jet substitutes, such as oil shale and cannel coal in order to emulate the jet ones.

The date of these beads has been reviewed by Sheridan (2007), who suggests that while they do not belong to the earliest Neolithic, a currency within the 38th-35th or 34th century BC seems possible. The question of the lower end of this date range is a matter for debate, hinging upon the currency of the specific type of blade-polished flint axehead (as found at Greenbrae) in Yorkshire.

It is not known whether the use of 'monster beads' was gender-specific.

Belt sliders from (top) 'Skye' and (bottom) Beacharra, Argyll & Bute. ©NMS

Belt sliders, like 'monster beads', were prestigious possessions, again made of jet and substitute jet-like materials. They are slightly later than 'monster beads', being of Middle Neolithic date and with a currency within the 3300-2900 BC bracket. The distribution map shows that these are widely distributed in Britain, with a concentration in Yorkshire, the source of the jet; within Scotland, there is a bias towards the south, with the alleged findspot of 'Skye' having been challenged (Clarke et al. 1985, 238). Again, emulation of jet examples in local materials took place, with the 'Skye' example of cannel coal or shale, while the example from the Clyde cairn at Beacharra is of Whitby jet.

These have tended to be found in funerary contexts, where (in English findspots) they are associated with single graves (under round or oval barrows, and/or within a ring ditch) of individual adult men. At Beacharra, the presence of the slider indicates secondary use of an already centuries’-old chambered tomb.

Miscellaneous stone beads: these include five black stone beads from Skara Brae, which Childe had assumed to be jet but which have been shown, by XRF analysis by Mary Davis, to be made of a stone other than jet (and are probably of Orcadian origin). A few other stone beads were found at Skara Brae.

Distribution map of belt sliders. 1: Skye, 2:Balgone, East Lothian, 3: Beacharra, Argyll and Bute; 4: probably SE Scotland, 5:Hallmyre, Scottish Borders, 6: Elihzier, Dumfries and Galloway, 7 and 8: Glenluce Sands, Dumfries and Galloway ©NMS

A Late Neolithic bead of lead ore, found in Quanterness passage tomb, should be mentioned here. Needless to say, the use of this material does not imply any knowledge of metal during the Late Neolithic; instead, we should see it as the use of an attractive, locally available stone, distinguished, and possibly lent liminal power, by its weight.

There may be one or two other stone beads from Neolithic contexts in Scotland and it would be useful to undertake a thorough search. The globular jet bead found in a chamber tomb at Cairnholy is not Neolithic, but instead relates to an Early Bronze Age secondary reuse of the monument.

Outstanding research questions

  • •Refinement of the dating of ‘monster beads’ would be useful, by getting reliable AMS dates for the contexts of any such beads found in the future, and by paying attention to any dates that are acquired for the specific type of edge-polished axehead that accompanied the Greenbrae beads.
  • •It would be useful to ‘bottom out’ the question of whether the ‘Skye’ slider had indeed been found there; this is a matter of trawling through antiquarian documentation (since this is a very old find), although it is quite possible that no relevant information exists.