A heroine of beads


When I started to study archaeology a lecturer recommended that I should interest myself in all aspects of the subject except place names and glass beads. Place name study is admittedly a complex and highly controversial area for anyone not fluent in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Old Norse. But glass is a wonderful material and ancient bead makers produced objects of such great beauty that I found it impossible to take this well-intentioned advice. Beads do present a number of problems: where was the glass made, where were the beads made, did the designs have a symbolic significance? Glass is basically silica obtained from sand. Sand alone can be fused to make a glass but only at 1700°C. This high temperature was unavailable to the ancient world. The addition of natron, or soda ash, considerably lowers the temperature of fusion but produces a glass that, embarrassingly, is water soluble! To give the glass stability lime or magnesia is added. A portion of cullet, or scrap glass, is also added to encourage the mixing of ingredients. The picture shows two Saxon and a Roman bead from an excavation at Ilkley. Making glass is one thing; producing items like the illustrated beads is quite another.

Margaret Guido FSA (1912-1994) was the great name in British bead studies. She had a long and most interesting career but her personal life must have been dominated by two marital separations about which I can find very little information. She had been born in Bromley, Kent as Cecily Margaret Preston. She was the daughter of Arthur Gurney Preston, a wealthy and Cambridge educated engineer from West Lodge, West Wickham in Kent. In the 1911 census he had lived in some style in a 20 room mansion with five servants, but he died in 1920 when his daughter was only eight years old. I am not sure what happened to her mother (Elsie Marie Fidgeon)  who had been born in Acton and spent some time at a boarding school in my home town of Eastbourne. A woman of this name married a Percival Bodington in 1920, so she may have been separated from Margaret’s father prior to his death. Those that have written about Margaret say she lost her mother at an early age. So she might, but surely not by death since a woman of her mother’s name didn’t die until 1964. Although effectively orphaned at this early age Margaret had the great good fortune, as a young woman, to work with luminaries such as Mortimer Wheeler, Tessa Wheeler and Christopher Hawkes. She studied at UCL where one of her lecturers was another immortal, Robin Collingwood. At UCL she met Stuart Piggott, a highly intelligent and cultivated man, who later succeeded Gordon Childe as Abercromby professor of archaeology at Edinburgh University. Margaret was married to him at Marlborough in November 1936 and they moved to Rockbourne, Hants. It was consequently as Peggy Piggott that she took part in the Sutton Hoo ship excavation as the clouds of war were gathering in 1939. As the smallest and lightest member of the team she seems to have spent most time excavating within the central area of Mound 1.

After war broke out her husband served in the army as a military intelligence officer in India. Margaret was able to undertake some archaeology famously at Beaulieu Heath in the New Forest. After the war she excavated a crannog in the western isles of Scotland. Her childless marriage broke up in 1954 and she moved to Suffolk. This event was seemingly a source of great sorrow to Stuart Piggott but the cause of the separation is unknown to me. The two were certainly still acquainted at the end of their lives. After remarriage to Luigi Guido in 1957, Margaret travelled to Sicily where she wrote guide books on Sicilian and southern Italian archaeology. Returning to the UK she studied the Beck Bead collection at the University of Cambridge and can justly be said to have introduced the study of glass beads to British archaeology. From what those who knew her have written I haven’t got the impression that Margaret’s life, or her two marriages, was very happy. But she was an extraordinarily beautiful lady who led a remarkably colourful life including great friendship with the classical scholar Arnold Lawrence, Colonel TE Lawrence’s brother. After 1975 she lived in Devizes, where she was a leading light of the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, as was her ex-husband Professor Piggott. Margaret’s nephew was John Preston, the author of a novel called ‘The Dig’ based on the events at Sutton Hoo. I hope Margaret’s contribution to archaeology isn’t forgotten; it never will be among bead enthusiasts of course. If you want a copy of her great book on Prehistoric and Roman beads be prepared to spend £150. I got mine for £20 by post from an Amsterdam pornographic book shop, but I had to pay in used fivers.


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