Were shell beads from Mediterranean exported to Britain during the Bronze Age?

This is the questions University of York scientists managed to answer through their study of shell-made jewellery material unearthed at the Early Bronze Age site of Great Cornard, near Suffolk, UK. The study was based on non-destructive techniques which led to pinpointing the species of shells used in this early version of jewellery making, a task quite difficult with over-worked material.

Since most identifying features of the shells are destroyed while the beads are being made, it has been really difficult to realize how the original shell would look like, and, hence, its species. The Great Cornard beads were really over-worked and they are described as white disc-shaped beads of tiny size. As reported by the University of York, when it was first established that the beads had been made from shell, the question arose as to its source. Had the shell been obtained locally or did it originate from a species from further afield, perhaps even the Mediterranean thorny oyster (Spondylus)? The Mediterranean thorny oyster is a shell of long-standing symbolic and cultural significance which is known to have been used on the Continent around the time when the Great Cornard necklace was made.

The quest starter when prehistoric jewellery specialist Dr Alison Sheridan, of National Museums Scotland, facilitated access to the Great Cornard necklace, which had been excavated by Suffolk Archaeology. To identify the beads’ raw material, the team (archaeologists, mathematicians, chemists and physicists from different University of York and other York-based institutions) used amino acid racemisation analysis (a technique used previously mainly for dating artefacts), light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and Raman spectroscopy. Dr Sonia O’Connor, of the University of Bradford’s Department of Archaeological Sciences, carried out the light and electron microscopy.

So, was there any Mediterranean connection regarding the shells? The answer is no.

Research showed that Bronze Age craftspeople used species like dog whelk and tusk shells, both of which were likely to have been sourced and worked locally, to fashion tiny disc-shaped beads in the necklace.

“The statistical analysis used pattern recognition algorithms for taxonomic identification, comparing the composition of the beads with a large database of shell amino acid compositions. Although we cannot know the origin of the beads for certain, our multidisciplinary approach provides additional evidence for the identifications.” says Dr Julie Wilson, of the Departments of Chemistry and Mathematics and YCCSA.

“Dog whelks and tusk shells were likely to be available locally so these people did not have to travel far to get hold of the raw materials for their beads.There is evidence, from elsewhere in Britain and further afield, for the use of tusk shells at various times in the past. This may well be because they are relatively easy to work and their hollow shape is very distinctive.”, explains Dr Beatrice Demarchi, of York’s Department of Archaeology and BioArCh.