9 Surprises Viking Beads Reveal About Their World

The Vikings, masters of the seas and terror of medieval Europe, made and amassed thousands of viking beads that reveal surprising insights into their priorities and ambitions.

Feb 9, 2023By Rachel Morgan, MA Medieval Archaeology, BA History & Anthropology

viking beads


The Vikings are known for many things — raiding, trading, sailing, stealing, and fighting — but not beads. Yet, viking beads dominate the archaeological record in excavations of the Viking world. Easily overshadowed by the Vikings’ grand ships and (historically inaccurate) horned helmets, beads traveled with the Vikings around the world. Viking beads retain insights about the Norse world and what it meant to be a marauding trader, thief, and explorer in the volatile medieval world.


1. Viking Beads Show a Mastery of Craft

Necklace buried with the Pagan Lady of Peel, via Manx National Heritage, Isle of Man


She was a witch! Maybe. Archaeologists discovered a woman buried in a cist grave on the Isle of Man in 1984. They named her the “Pagan Lady of Peel,” after discovering an iron rod wrapped in a goose wing and herbs placed beside her. At first, they called the rod a cooking spit. After further reflection, archaeologists suggested that the cooking spit might be a ritual staff. The Pagan Lady of Peel quickly gained renown as a Viking sorceress, though her true identity remains a mystery.


What is more certain is that the Pagan Lady stood about five foot, six inches, and died in middle age sometime around 950 CE. She wore a woolen dress to the grave. Her people buried her with grave goods including knives, shears, a comb, needles, a mortar, and a pestle. These items had clear functions. Around her skull, archaeologists recovered 71 glass beads. The string that held these beads together had disintegrated, scattering the beads around the Pagan Lady’s head, and alluding to a craft mastered by Scandinavian artisans.


Loose beads found in Viking Gotland, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


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Vikings made beads at urban centers along waterways across Scandinavia. Excavations at Ribe, Denmark have revealed work plots laid out along the riverfront. Similar urban layouts have emerged from excavations across Europe. Archaeologists identified beadmakers’ workshops based on layers of burnt clay, charcoal, and ash in the bottom of hearths and of course layers of glass beads.


Monochrome beads from a Viking grave in Birka, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


The Vikings specialized in glass beads. Though they had the technology to make complex, multi-colored beads, they produced great quantities of monochrome beads as seen on the Pagan Lady’s necklace. One way to do this was with a mandrel, a long metal stick, using a winding technique. The beadmaker heated raw glass over the fire in the hearth. Dipping the mandrel into the hot glass, the beadmaker pulled up a glob of melted glass and swirled it around the mandrel. The mandrel created a hole in the glass. Once cooled, the artisan removed the mandrel to reveal a new glass bead. They repeated this process again and again, producing thousands of glass beads. The accumulation of raw materials and technical production of beads required considerable time and resources, illuminating the ways the Vikings spent their days when not sailing across the seas.


2. The Vikings Upcycled Ancient Roman Materials 

Tesserae potentially from a Byzantine mosaic, 6th-25th century, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Archaeologists have discovered tesserae blocks in Scandinavian trade centers. These tesserae blocks appear to have once formed larger mosaics in ancient Roman and/or Byzantine buildings. The Vikings found the colorful blocks and recycled them to make their beads. Although the Vikings may have enjoyed conquest for conquest’s sake, they seem to have also acquired objects useful to their crafts and trade back home.


Reuse comes laden with variable connotations in different societies and contexts. Buying a used car may be necessary, but not particularly glamorous. A bride wearing her mother’s wedding dress may translate as a touching, sentimental gesture. Did the tesserae from Rome connote the days of Caesar to the Vikings or were they just convenient spoils for the taking?


3. Their Farms Called Them Home

Reconstructed Viking Longhouse, via Lofotr Viking Museum, Norway


On paper, the Vikings entered history at the end of the eighth century when Anglo-Saxon monks recorded their attacks on monasteries in the British Isles. But the Scandinavians did not appear out of thin air. Scholars debate why the Vikings decided to burst onto the seas at the end of the 700s CE. In doing so, they look back to who the Vikings were before they set sail.


Above the Arctic Circle in the Lofoten Islands, archaeologists found a longhouse constructed in the seventh century and used through the ninth century. The soon-to-be-Vikings constructed a longhouse of wood and turf sods, measuring 260 feet long. Sprinkled among the dirt were thirty beads. Although some melted glass emerged from the earth as well, no beadmaking operation has yet been discovered at the farm. Instead, archaeologists believe most of these beads were imports.


Beads displayed at the reconstructed longhouse, via Lofotr Viking Museum, Norway


One of the beads scattered across the longhouse is made of jet. Though Norway contains sources of jet, during the medieval period, jet may also have been imported from the Yorkshire coast, particularly from Whitby. Whitby lies a little over 130 miles from Lindisfarne. During the Viking Age it belonged to the kingdom of Northumbria and gained notoriety as the home of an Anglo-Saxon monastery, where the Synod of Whitby occurred in 664 CE. Before the construction of the monastery, the area was recognized for its supply of jet. Vikings brought jet beads as well as raw jet back to Scandinavia.


Though the Anglo-Saxon monks can be forgiven for their confusion, raids on the British Isles were not about them. They were about the Vikings, their needs, and the world they left behind in Scandinavia. Beads show that wherever Vikings journeyed home remained on their mind.


4. They Criss-Crossed Global Trade Networks

Beads recovered from excavations at Jorvik, via the Jorvik Viking Centre, York, England


In 866 CE, Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless led a Viking army in the sack of York, England — then part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Northumbria. A decade later, some Vikings established a commercial hub and power center at York. Excavations of this hub, called Jorvik, revealed some 300 glass beads.


Archaeologists also found amber beads. Vikings obtained raw amber, (fossilized tree resin), from the Baltic region. They made it to Russia by around 750 CE and soon reached the Baltic Sea. Once they had the amber, Vikings molded the yellowish-orange globs into beads or other jewels (pendants and rings were also found at Jorvik).


Amber beads and accessories, via the Jorvik Viking Centre, York, England


It has been suggested that amber beads did more than catch the eye. Amber may have emitted a static charge or smell that allured the Vikings with links to otherworldly powers. Amber beads show Vikings playing an integral role in connecting the disparate peoples and cultures of the medieval world even as they concentrated their power in the west.


5. The Orient Was All the Rage

A necklace with oriental style beads and Arabic coins found in a grave in Öland, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


At a Viking trade site in Mecklenburg, Germany, archaeologists recovered a hoard with a sword-hilt, silver foil fragments, three brass bars, two zinc bars, 122 green glass beads, and 22 segmented gold and silver-foil beads. Silver and gold-foil beads were frequently imported by the Vikings from Eastern ports. Tenth-century Arabian traveler, Ibn Fadlӓn also described the Vikings’ interest in green glass beads: “The most desirable ornaments they have are green ceramic beads they keep in their boats. They will pay dearly for them, one dirham for a single bead. They thread them into necklaces for their wives.”


From the Baltic Sea, the Vikings gained access to the markets of the Middle Eastern world. The Vikings brought slaves, fur, walrus’ tusks, honey, and amber to the East. In return, they acquired silver coins, silk, and beads.


Viking bead necklace made with carnelian and rock crystal beads imported from the Black Sea region, via the Field Museum, Chicago


Beads from the East looked different from Scandinavian beads. They came in shades of silver and gold-foil. Some beads depicted the evil eye in circles of blue, white, and black. There were also millefiori beads, carnelian beads, and rock crystal beads. Ultimately, beads from the East became more popular than the Scandinavian beads. The Viking bead industry collapsed, leaving the Eastern beads to dominate the market. The Vikings’ fascination with the foreign is evident in the fall of the bead industry, suggesting the exotic’s pull on the Viking mind.


6. Beads Transcended the Viking World

An assortment of beads recovered from Uppland, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


It was winter, sometime between 873-4 CE. He was in his mid-thirties to late forties. He had followed his comrades in the Viking army to battle against the Anglo-Saxons in Derbyshire, England. There came a blow to the head that likely floored him. His enemy compounded that wound by slicing through his femoral artery. When the fighting ceased, he was buried in England with a sword, two buckles, two knives, a key, a boar’s tusk, a bird’s humerus, a Thor’s hammer amulet, and two beads.


Invading another kingdom was risky business. There was always a chance that a Viking warrior would not return home, an honorable if inconvenient reality. Interring a fellow warrior with weapons, clothing, and amulets of the Norse god Thor can be understood as readying the fallen warrior for the afterlife. The two beads raise more questions.


Norse goddess figurine wearing beads, via the Field Museum, Chicago


The beads could have been mementos from home, a comrade, or a partner — something to remember the Norse by in the next world. They could have also been used as a form of currency. For looks, remembrance, or exchange, the beads went with the warrior in death towards what the Vikings believed would be the next chapter. Pendants of Norse deities also wear strings of beads corroborating the role of beads in the Viking afterlife.


7. Odin Did Not Call All the Shots

A coffin grave in Uppland, Sweden revealed a person buried with beads, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


At the Swedish trade post in Birka, Vikings buried a five or six-year-old girl with forty-seven glass beads. Across the world, archaeologists have found Vikings buried with one to dozens of beads. Based on the number of beads in her grave, the Birka girl may very well have belonged to an important or wealthy family.


Assortment of beads found in a cremation grave in Vӓstmanland, Sweden, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


According to The Saga of the Ynglings, the Birka girl’s grave was all wrong. Odin ordered mortals to bury the dead accordingly: “He decreed that the dead were all to be cremated along with their possessions and said that everyone should arrive in Valhalla with the riches from his funeral pyre, and with the treasures he had hidden in the earth.” 


Eighty beads recovered from a grave in Birka, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


Despite these orders from on high, the Vikings buried men, women, and children in graves across the world as they began to convert to Christianity. Excavation of these burials shows that beads frequently joined the journey to the next world. While the Vikings continued to obey Odin’s edict to put their treasures in the earth bound for Valhalla, they gradually stopped burning their corpses and adopted Christian burial practices. These burial practices show the Vikings cherry picking from the belief systems they encountered.


8. They Kept an Open Mind

Assorted beads from a Viking grave in Öland, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


Archaeologists found beads depicting the evil eye on necklaces across the Viking world. Imported from the East, adherents believed the evil eye jewelry deflected the evil power contained in some humans’ eyes. Vikings are well-known for their belief in the Norse pantheon with Odin, Thor, Freya, and Loki at the helm. Later many Vikings converted to Christianity. In Helgö, Sweden, archaeologists recovered a Buddha figurine believed to have been made in seventh-century India or Pakistan. Religion held great power in the medieval world. Crafty and opportunistic, the Vikings adapted to the worlds they found themselves in. Whether their adoption of religious paraphernalia from other cultures was out of genuine belief or socio-political maneuvering remains unknown.


Mostly blue beads from excavations in Viking Uppland, via the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm


9. Even Viking Beads Needed Protecting in the Viking World

Viking beads in Scotland’s Galloway Hoard, 8th century, National Museums Scotland


In 1886, a hoard was discovered in Orkney. Instead of piles of silver and gold, it contained piles of beads, a spoon, and a brooch. The beads were a mixture of amber and glass. Vikings liked a good hoard. Common conceptions of hoards include piles of silver and gold. For the common Viking, wealth looked different. Smaller hoards have been recovered revealing smaller, though no less important items. Beads have also been included in larger hoards like Scotland’s Galloway Hoard.


These hoards show that Vikings ascribed meaning and value to more than silver and gold. Objects that traveled the breadth of their worlds also garnered value and were worth protecting. On the other hand, intentionally burying beads, suggests that there was something to hide from. At various times, Vikings faced climate changes, demographic pressures, economic upheavals, transitions to urban markets, and conquests. Even with reputations for brutality, the secret buried beads show that Vikings did not always come out on top. Archaeologists continue to discover Viking beads, promising more Viking revelations to come.

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By Rachel MorganMA Medieval Archaeology, BA History & AnthropologyRachel Morgan is an archaeologist interested in material culture studies, small finds, regulatory compliance, and conflict archaeology. She holds a MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York and a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.