Issue date: 29 September 2022

An extraordinary set of ancient jewellery discovered on the Isle of Man has been declared Treasure by the Isle of Man Coroner of Inquests, James Brooks.

Found during planned archaeological excavations at Berk Farm near Kirk Michael as part of the Round Mounds of the Isle of Man project, the find consists of 122 jet beads that make up a complete necklace and a matching bracelet.

Allison Fox, Curator for Archaeology for Manx National Heritage said:

“This really is an astonishing find.  These are the very personal belongings of someone who was buried four thousand years ago.”

The necklace has a terminal plate at each end, and two “spacer-plates” on each side. In between these decorated plates and forming the majority of the necklace are one hundred and three undecorated, but carefully fashioned, barrel-shaped beads.  There is also an undecorated triangular-shaped bead which would have been used to secure the necklace around the neck. 

All of the beads appear to be made from jet (fossilised and pressurised wood) which can be prone to splitting.  The maker would have been extremely skilled to decorate the larger terminal and “spacer-plates” beads, as well to produce the large number of hollowed and shaped barrel-shaped beads.  What is even more remarkable is the presence of the string-distribution holes in the decorated plates.  These allow the number of strings of beads to go from four, to five to seven strings of beads in total.  Somewhere inside the spacer-plate beads, a Y-shaped has been formed to allow the different number of strings to be passed through and secured.

The bracelet is made from two strings of barrel-shaped beads, with an undecorated terminal plate at each end. 

The jewellery would have been a tremendously high status object when it was buried, due to the skill required to work the jet.  Even after four millennia, the necklace and bracelet still look extremely attractive.   

The majority of the beads were excavated in 2019, but it was just this year that excavations on the site were completed and so it is now clear that this collection of artefacts is the complete assemblage from this particular burial.   

The beads were worn and buried with someone who was laid in a specially dug oval pit in a grave lined with stones.  They lay on their right side in a crouched position, wearing the necklace and bracelet, with at least the wrist with the bracelet on drawn up to their chest. They were facing the coast, looking out towards the Mull of Galloway.

Further afield, only around 90 examples of similar necklaces and bracelets have been found in Britain and Ireland, mostly in northern England and Scotland but with relatively few complete examples, and still fewer “sets” of necklace plus bracelet. 

Allison continued:

“We are very grateful to the excavation team for sharing their interpretation of the site with us and to Dr Alison Sheridan, retired curator at National Museums Scotland, for sharing her expertise on these particular artefacts.  And a special thank you to the landowners of Berk Farm, Robert and Anne Cannell, who have been so supportive and enthusiastic”.

As jet is such a delicate material, the beads have needed specialist care and conservation, carried out at the Manx Museum by Christopher Weeks, Conservator.  A number of the beads are still undergoing some conservation, but some are now on display in the Prehistoric Gallery at the Manx Museum.