Curator’s Choice – Jet necklace from Middleton-on-the-Wolds

Posted: 2nd June 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Jet necklace from Middleton-on-the-Wolds

This jet necklace was made in the Bronze Age, around four thousand years ago and was buried with a person when they died. It was found by a workman who was digging for sand in Mr Soanes’ garden in Middleton-on-the-Wolds (East Yorkshire), in 1901.

Some of the necklace was reconstructed by the Victorian archaeologist, John Mortimer, to show what it might have looked like when it was worn. Six of the larger beads are original, these are known as spacer plates.

Bronze Age jet necklaces were made from Whitby jet in Yorkshire. Whitby is the only source of jet in the United Kingdom. It took a lot of skill to make the beads. The jet was shaped using a flint saw and sandstone. The trickiest part would have been making the holes through the bead for the string. This was probably done with a bronze wire or a bow drill. The spacer beads have multiple holes which go through the bead, however because the spacer beads are narrower on one side, this required a lot of skill. The holes would have been drilled to create an ‘L’ or a ‘Y’ shape inside the bead. The craftsman would have visualised the shape inside the bead as he was doing it. After the holes were drilled, the beads would have been polished and the decorative pattern incised on, probably using a similar method to the hole-drilling.

The spacer plates were made as a set with identical decoration. On this necklace, you can see the pattern is a double row of dots forming a diamond shape in the middle and half diamonds on either side. Other jet necklaces have similar decoration to this (dots, crosses, triangles, zig-zags) and it is also used on Bronze Age pottery. Some people think that the similarity in patterns used on these different types of objects could be significant.

Necklaces like this are found in three regions of Scotland and four small areas in England, showing an important connection between Yorkshire and Scotland in the Bronze Age. One idea is that ‘spacer plate’ necklaces were copying Irish gold lunulae, which are large crescent shaped collars made from thin sheet gold decorated with patterns scratched on the surface. The decoration is similar to those on jet necklaces and the necklaces form a similar shape to the collars. So the Scottish elite might have commissioned these jet necklaces from Whitby jet workers to imitate the gold necklaces.

I chose this object because it shows the importance of Yorkshire in the economy and culture of Bronze Age Britain. We have several complete jet necklaces in our collection, but a lot of people I talk to out-and-about in Hull don’t realise they are in the museum or how special and important they are. Hopefully people will see this and it will inspire them to take a look, discover more and celebrate these objects which are nationally significant.

Written by Research and Documentation Assistant Alice Rose.

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