Frankish Bead

The bead in this collection originates from the 6-7th century. It was traced back to the Frankish Empire which invaded the Netherlands in the 5th century. The Frankish bead was found in the grave of a deceased woman near Saint-Servatius in Maastricht, presumably to demonstrate her social power and/or protect her (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023). Because it was found near upper body parts, it is thought to have most likely been a part of a necklace. The following 3D model is one of the several beads found in the Netherlands and is in the possession of Centre Céramique.

3D model of the Frankish Bead

The jewelry piece is a ceramic piece which reflects the city of Maastricht’s history of utilizing clay from the river the Meuse to craft various goods. The bead was painted over using designs peculiar to Frankish beads. 

This object belongs to the following themes:



Place of Origin
Saint-Servatius, Maastricht,
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
500 – 600 CE

Pottery, Ceramic

Dimensions (cm)

3D Model

Canon EOS 6D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Delphine Burie & Marie-Zoé Fontinoy

Beads: The Mighty Story of a Tiny Object

Beads have been used on all continents throughout history (Dubin & Togashi, 1987). The archeologist and Merovingian bead expert, Mette Langbroek, wrote: “They’re really the first forms of self-expression. You find beads in every single culture; you find beads in every single era. And they all have their own history” (Inggs, 2023). Beads through their materiality can be representative of the history of a whole society (University of Oxford, 2013).  Accordingly, looking at the bead in this collection enables us to understand the context it originates from as well as the various meanings that can be attached to it.

The Bead’s Origin: The Franks Influence

It has been determined that the bead in this collection dates back to the Frankish era in the 6-7thcentury. The Franks, a powerful Germanic tribe, invaded the Western Roman Empire, including northern France, the Netherlands and Germany. This period had a significant impact on the history of the Netherlands, in terms of economy, religion, and art (The history of the Netherlands, n.d.). The Franks adopted basic techniques of craftsmanship developed by the Romans, including glassmaking and pottery production (Brown, 1984, p. 9). From Frankish art, the most common items retrieved are personal adornments and objects of daily use which consisted mostly of ornaments, weapons, buckles, and jewelry (Brown, 1984, p. 8). This is illustrated by the ceramic bead this collection presents.

The bead allows one to gain a deeper understanding of early medieval exchange and trade and burial practices of the Frankish era. By the 5th century, Clovis the First (first king of the Franks) expanded and united all Frankish territories to the west of the Meuse. The Franks established political and economic governance across the Netherlands and the cities of Nijmegen and Maastricht became highly important political and trading centers (History of the Netherlands, 2023). Franks, therefore, made Maastricht an important center for trade and manufacturing by using the Meuse River. By introducing Christianity to the Netherlands, beads other than their economic meaning gained a religious role in funerary practices (Langbroek, 2021). This is why many beads produced or traded during the Frankish period have been excavated in the Netherlands, and particularly in Maastricht.

The Bead’s Materiality: The Art of Bead-Making

The art of bead making was esteemed and valued for the skilled craftsmanship it demanded. Because of this, beads were created using an array of techniques to achieve various shapes, colors, design patterns and materials.  For instance, beads can be; round, square, hair pipe, or seed beads (Bead, 2022). The 3D model of the bead helps appreciate its roundness and observe the coloring of the interior hole of the object, presumably damaged by the cord it was attached to. Furthermore, the 3D model’s look and feel also depict the lightweight quality of the pottery bead, which, unlike glass beads, weighs little.  Indeed, Frankish beads were produced using many different materials. Still, the majority were made out of glass or ceramics as portrayed below – access to the images is provided by clicking on the captions. 

Glass beads were most likely put together with the techniques of mosaic glasswork, wound glass, and molded glass (How Beads Are Made | Global Beads, Inc., 2014). The technique of mosaic glasswork to date consists of melting small pieces of glass together to create intricate shapes and designs. Similarly, for wound glasswork, glass is melted and wrapped around a metal bar. The glass hardens as it cools down, then new threads of glass are added around the precedent layer. For molded glass, glass is poured into molds to produce generic and specific bead designs. In contrast, ceramic beads are shaped into the desired form using cold wet clay. After they are air or fire dried, they become white ceramics that can be decorated with paint (Jon, 2021). 

As suggested already, beads’ materiality can reveal valuable information about their origins. In this case, the use of ceramics provides a clear connection to the city of Maastricht and its use of abundant high-quality clay the Meuse provides for craft making. On the other hand, the specific design of the bead can be related back to Frankish aesthetics.

The Bead in Culture: Symbolisms and Meanings 

The Frankish bead is associated with two themes of this collection: Economics & Wealth and Religion & Beliefs. On the one hand, the presence of this artifact in this collection illustrates the influential power of the city of Maastricht during the Frankish period. By retracing the locations where Frankish beads were discovered, we can better understand the areas where the Frankish Empire conducted trade and maintained a presence. Moreover, in the 6-7th century, beads were regarded as a valuable and prestigious commodity, especially amongst the highest social classes (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023). Elite societies would parade their jewelry to display their power and wealth and to acquire objects that demanded significant craftsmanship and highly valued materials (King, n.d.). In burial practices, beads were used as a tool to demonstrate the social and financial status of the person buried, or the person burying them, essentially signifying their power to bury goods of high value (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023).

On the other hand, beads can be linked to religious conceptions of life and death. As the Franks brought Christianity to the Dutch territory, people’s values and ritual practices were significantly guided by Christian beliefs (Wallace-Hadrill, 1983). The etymology of “bead” derives from ancient Germanic for ‘prayer’ (Inggs, 2023). The curator of the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition, Annemarieke Willemsen, points out how different religions employ different names for prayer beads, such as “rosaries” in Catholicism” and “Tasbih” in Islam (Riksmuseum van Oudheden, 2022, 7:50). For those interested, the exhibition shared in the video below details the nuances between different prayers beads.

Additionally, the Frankish bead of this collection illustrates the burial practices of the early medieval period of the Netherlands (411-1000 CE). While it is less common to bury the deceased with goods, it was a customary practice in ancient cultures to place various types of objects into the person’s grave (S. Aarts, personal communication, March 1, 2023). Religious rituals attached to beads may have served various purposes such as a means of protection from evil forces in the passage to the afterlife or as a gift to the gods to facilitate the soul’s journey (Cieslik, 2022). Nowadays, prayers beads remain widely used in everyday practice in various religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Catholicism (Cieslik, 2022).  Present-day burial practices now use beads as a form of commemoration for loved ones who have passed away.


Beads are travelers of human history. Their presence in this collection offers a window into a pivotal era in Maastricht’s history and invites visitors to engage with earlier conceptions of life and death. If you want to hear more about beads, the video of the Rijksmuseum exhibition provided below illustrates additional fascinating stories about these tiny treasures, including contemporary examples such as the usage of beads during the Covid-19 pandemic. We once again invite you to dig into the bead’s texture with the 3D model, end to consider how much meaning and history a tiny object can carry and how it has made its way throughout centuries for you to also experience it.  

The Rijksmuseum: Guided tour through the exhibition ‘5000 years of beads’

Written by Delphine, Burie & Marie-Zoé, Fontinoy