I’ve known that glass has been important through out history for pretty much all of the time I’ve been lampworking. Glass beads and other artifacts have survived for centuries, and I’ve yet to find a glass book which doesn’t mention that fact.

Chain bracelet with 4 viking style beads made from amber glass. Three of the beads have lines cut into them, and one is a simple disc shape.

What the glass books don’t mention so much was the people who made these beads and the importance they had. It turns out I was missing out on a lot of fascinating knowledge – and much of what I thought I knew was wrong.

I met Joanna and Robert who are Wright History on a Strive business start up course in January. We quickly realised that there was plenty of common ground in the subjects which fascinated us. A collaboration was born. I made some viking style beads which became a bracelet and cocktail stirrers.

Joanna and Robert have generously shared their knowledge with a short post on the Vikings and their use of glass. We’ll then be chatting on their YouTube channel and I’ll be recreating a viking style bead with coloured decorations.

Here’s a brief bit of Wright History.

close up of bracelet with 4 viking style beads.

The Vikings have had a bit of a bad rap. Raiders, pillagers, and destroyers – terrorizing the peoples of England, Scotland and Ireland. Well, some Vikings did that for sure – for a while at least. Many more, though, were merchants and traders, intrepid voyagers, and skilled artisans.

Born to a world of short summers and often short lives, they adored the exotic and the colourful. They liked to adorn themselves with just these sorts of things: silver and gold, fine wools and expensively-dyed silks, and above all, intricately-worked glass beads.

An Arab traveller who met Viking traders on the Volga river said, “Vikings will do anything to get hold of coloured beads”! Viking women especially loved these miniature masterpieces. They wore strings of beads across their chests, suspended from a pair of elaborate bronze brooches attached to either shoulder, which held up their woollen overgarment. These colourful displays might include gold and silver trinkets, small pieces of worked amber, carnelian, or rock crystal. But most prominent was the coloured glass.

How did they find such objects, and how did they fashion them into such delightful forms? Well, the Viking trading networks supplied the raw materials, and their great trading emporia – most notably York in England, Birke in Sweden, and Hedeby in Denmark, with others far beyond in all directions – powered the furnaces which turned those materials into magical objects. The coloured glass itself came from many locations. Broken drinking vessels were shipped from the Rhineland, where they still made such objects in the old Roman style (or at least a bit like it!). The gorgeous coloured glass, however, most likely came from old Roman mosaics. These tiny tesserae would have been ripped out of their original settings, batched according to colour, and forged into blocks – the easier to transport. These resources made their way to the market towns of the Viking world. And that’s when the real work began!

The modern glassworker has many advantages. Mechanically controllable fuel sources, protective clothing, and digital thermostats to help ensure that the processes of both heating and cooling will not mar or even destroy their creations. The Vikings had clay furnaces, fuelled by charcoal; the temperature maintained by bellows, adjusted by experience. Such a furnace appears to have operated in Jorvik (York) in the Coppergate district. In such low-tech conditions, these early (perhaps actually Europe’s first) recyclers managed to work glass, not only into tiny beads, but also to decorate those beads with beautiful strings and blobs of different coloured glass. The greatest workshops of the Viking world managed to produce something even more incredible. Today we call it millefiori (“a thousand flowers”): dozens of rods of coloured glass, carefully and precisely bunched together and drawn while molten to make mesmerizing flower-like patterns. A principle not dissimilar to the way in which seaside rock is made today.

And so, the smashed glass of their own time, combined with the coloured glass of a former age became something new. Precious, loved, valuable, magical. It is a lesson that perhaps we should take to heart. Especially when we think of the millions of tons of perfectly reworkable glass still dumped into landfill or thrown into our rivers and seas around the world today. We are throwing away a substance of beauty and joy !

The real Viking world was both multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. These Scandinavian explorers sailed and trekked all the way from the west coast of Ireland to the Caliphate of Baghdad, absorbing both the treasures and the ideas of the numerous lands in between. If you would like to travel with them on some of their most celebrated journeys, meet their kings and their warriors, listen to their poets, and above all be thrilled by their beautiful art, then follow the link for our course on The Viking Age, which is broadcasting soon.

Wright History provides a great range of learning for pleasure courses aimed at discerning adults. Expertly led and lavishly illustrated via zoom.

A free taster of what we’ll be covering on The Viking Age will be on out YouTube channel very soon. There is also a 10% discount for new students who have found us via The Glass of Joy with this code: GlassJoy10.

Two cocktail stirrers each with a viking style bead made from amber glass. Both beads are simple donut shaped. The stirrers are made from clear glass.
Close up of two cocktail stirrers each with a viking style bead made from amber glass. Both beads are simple donut shaped. The stirrers are made from clear glass.