The beginnings of the story of beads reach as far back as 108,000 BC (new information since the initial publication of Dubin’s definitive History of Beads in 1987), when our primary ancestors, the homo sapiens, were beginning to replace Neanderthal man. Grasping this vast lineage is no easy task for most of us in this high speed culture, so I thought I would offer a very modest context for this story, so our minds can stretch a bit, slow down, and embrace its epic nature.
The most ancient beads fashioned by man emerged originally from the ocean – they were shell – and they were excavated in the Skhul Cave at Mt. Carmel in northern Israel. The discovery of these artifacts revealed a life story extending from Paleolithic man to the present: one million years of human evolution! They predate by 75,000 years what was thought to be man’s most ancient expression of art in the intricately carved mammoth tusks. With the growth and expansion of Neanderthal and other population(s), a somewhat complex social cohesion began, with our ancestors organizing themselves into particular identifiable groups. Along with social organization came communication, ritual behavior, and ultimately a language of symbolic character. Rituals were needed to teach and sanctify rules of behavior, and in those rituals certain adornments were required to communicate intelligible visions or intentions (world views even). The incredibly fragile and lyrical cave paintings of France and northern Spain – Chauvet, Lascaux, Alta Mira – are extraordinary examples of an evolved symbolic “language” of peoples inhabiting Europe 35,000 years ago, who lovingly and artfully depicted their hunting and gathering life in locations they didn’t necessarily inhabit. It has been theorized that these elegant paintings were meant as either collections of communications to other tribes or the defining of a ceremonial area.
During this time which predates the Neolithic/New Stone age (10,000 BC), our ancient ancestors crafted stone and shell objects to serve as talismans in their lives: objects of decoration to protect them, to endow them perhaps with supernatural powers to meet the fierce challenges of survival in their harsh and mysterious world. Scholars have also concluded that these ancient crafted beads (with simple perforations to ensure that the beads could be worn) were more than amulets for good fortune, but that they were also pieces of pure adornment: elements of beauty to enhance the individual’s sense of distinct and unique self. The bead materials of this ancient period were: shell, teeth, ivory, amber, and stone, many of these relating to foods being consumed at the time.
Fossils revealed that these homo sapiens had the ingenuity to move from the earlier crude stone tools to complex tools made of bone which they used to carve and shape their materials for decorative use. Remnants of clothing were discovered with beaded decoration that date back to 35,000 years ago, and other remains have indicated that these societies also used make-up materials, with red ochre discovered at many burial sites. Early Paleolithic man carved beads into both animal and human shapes, likely seeking identification both with the power of the surrounding animals, and the beauty and fertility inherent in the human form (particularly the breast). The Mesolithic period which followed saw climate warming, forests replacing glaciers, and the creative products of peoples becoming simpler (they used shale stone, local shell, carp teeth, and spondylus shell), as humans learned hunting, fishing, and animal domestication.
With the Neolithic period (beginning around 9500 BC), there was a dramatic shift from nomadic to settled living in the area now thought of as the Middle East, also called Central Asia. Plants and animals were domesticated, irrigation developed, and river valley societies emerging in the region of Mesopotamia (now identified as Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey). A high level of craftsmanship was detected in brick dwellings, weaving, pottery, and finally bead forms. With the development of long distance trading between Mediterranean cultures and Western Asia, came beads of coral, carnelian, lapis lazuli, amber. Bead forms by this period were now quite varied: disks, cylinders, barrels, as well as the rounded forms. The Sumerians, who dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of written history in 3100 BC to the fall of Babylon in 540 BC, developed the first form of writing on clay tablets and built a city-state civilization, where sophisticated bead production became part of the culture; they ultimately passed on their techniques to the Babylonians. While Egypt had a huge quantity of resources for bead manufacturing, the various peoples of Mesopotamia had to import materials. So, ultimately beads and bead materials became integral parts of various culture thanks to the vibrant level of trade during this period, which would ultimately be responsible for spreading both materials and aesthetic visions in ever widening circles... Egyptian beadwork became legendary for centuries starting around 2200 BC and continuing all the way through the Late Period (1000 to 330 BC), as all peoples in Egyptian society wore beaded decoration. Glassmaking and faience flourished during the New Kingdom (1350 BC), though it had been “invented” around 4000 BC. Glass beads frequently replaced precious stones, their art allowing it to be made in incredibly brilliant colors. On a par with the sophistication of Egyptian bead crafting, was the work of the peoples of the Indus Valley (2500 BC), an area now identified as Pakistan and northwest India. This culture was known for their cities built from brick, creation of sophisticated drainage systems, and multi-storied houses. Their architecture and jewelry was considered very complex. As artists they fashioned elegant terracotta sculptures, intricately carved seals, agates framed in fine gold, and etched agates of all shapes and sizes. Reasons for the relatively short life of their culture (barely one thousand years) are not fully understood, though the guess of scholars is that both drought and a decline in trade with Egypt played a part.
The story moves ultimately of course from the ancient into more academically familiar eras of human history -- a story of man’s passion for exploring meaning through symbolic depiction, his spirit reaching for a connection with the divine. You could say, I think, that the history of bead-making and bead trading (encompassing art, commerce, spirituality, politics, birth and death ….) is in fact another rendering of the history of human culture. What I have discovered and what continues to inspire me finally is this: the physical form of a bead, whether it be of stone, shell, glass, amber, or some luminous gem, is in and of itself a microcosm of the human journey with its infinite variety. And within this microcosm live all of man’s amazing qualities – his joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, dreams and nightmares – and that most compelling thing of all: mystery.
What follows is my quite abbreviated treatment of a number of important bead cultures, cultures which are reflected in my collection of beaded necklaces. I used The History of Beads by Lois Dubin as a primary resource, a book rich both in visual treatment and scholarship. I wanted to place these cultures in our minds historically and also show their amazing interrelatedness, which is after all the very nature of bead cultures!
No other culture offered such a huge variety of beads in so many diverse materials. The creation of beads is believed to have originated during the Old Kingdom - 2000-1700BC with such a rich array of precious and non-precious materials as : amethysts, gold, carnelian, lapis, and turquoise. During this time the Pharaohs began to rule Egypt, and the construction of the great pyramids was begun. Egypt was in its time a very stable culture – had defensible borders, the Nile as its primary shipping route, and huge natural resources (precious metals and minerals). Along with security, this provided also a sense of insularity – and thus conservatism in its art forms. Styles and techniques varied very little in the close to three thousand years of Egyptian creative power. The high art of bead manufacture occurred during the Middle Kingdom, with guilds spreading throughout the land to support the numbers of bead-workers. By far the largest production from Egypt was faience, an inexpensive composite thought to be the forerunner of glass (see the Lexicon
). Invented long before in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC, it was considered to be the first synthetic substance to simulate precious stones. There was a decline in glass production in Egypt around 1200, and glass just about disappeared at the end of the New Kingdom (1000 BC-330BC), the beadwork being created primarily for funerary purposes. Glass making was revived during the rule of Ptolemy (4th c BC), around the time Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, and through the early Roman period.
During the expansion of the Roman Empire from the second millennium BC to 476 AD its territory swept from Assyria to Armenia to Germany, Britain and Egypt. Roman art, which includes glasswork, was rooted in (influenced by) the Hellenistic aesthetic, with plenty of mixed colored stones and Etruscan detailing. The Romans had vast resources of beads and precious materials. From 1000 BC to 400 BC glass production developed seriously with factories in Syria, Egypt, Switzerland, Rhineland, and France. Their glass was heavily traded as far as China and Iran and Ethiopia. Along the East coast of the Mediterranean glassworks produced finely crafted beads and ultimately forged a link between the Roman and Islamic era. This was considered the last great glass producing period in history.
From the ancient times of the Indus Valley civilization from 2600 to 1600 BC, the Indians have produced beautiful beaded objects using precious and semi-precious materials. The stone bead industry had a primary role in Indian bead production. Some of the oldest beads in the world have been found in India – e.g. disk beads of ostrich shell, bone beads from cattle teeth, dating back to 17,000 and 23,000 BC. India’s landscape was endowed with rich mineral resources: chalcedony, agate (a very significant stone in the bead-making world), onyx, jasper, rock crystal. By 7000 BC the technology evolved so that beads were not only grooved or pierced, but actually shaped with manmade tools. Presence of and trade with the Indus valley culture, a complex and sophisticated society, had a galvanizing effect on Indian bead production. The Indus merchants traveled frequently to India, and Indians in turn spent time traveling to the valley to acquire materials and beads. Carnelians and agates were hugely valued, but bone, pottery, faience, onyx, lapis, and turquoise were also prevalent in this highly developed relationship of cultures. The etched carnelian beads found at Indus Valley sites from around 2500 BC provided excellent evidence of the trading connection. After the collapse of the Indus society in around 1600 BC, long distance trade for India slowed down considerably for about 1000 years. Following that a trading partnership with Rome started up (2nd c BC), and the precious raw agate and agate beads moved outward on a larger scale.
Ancient Afghanistan was a major supplier of raw materials and stone beads to the neighboring cultures, connected by the many trade routes through that region. Afghanistan bordered India, Iran, China, and Russia, becoming an important intermediary between the East and West. During the 3rd and 2nd millenium BC some manufacturing of beads took place in Afghanistan. When the Babylonian Empire collapsed, so did high quality bead making. Materials most often associated with this Central Asian landscape are: lapis, agate, jasper, and carnelian.
In the Rift Valley of Kenya the remains of ostrich egg beads were excavated which demonstrated that actual shaping of the beads had been done individually and included the drilling out of these shells for the purpose of stringing. These remains are dated at around 35,000 BC, while the most ancient form of African art appears to be beads made from mollusk and snail shells. Stone was another ancient material, and in Africa there was a wealth of indigenous stone: amazonite, quartz, granite, jasper, and bauxite. Large numbers of stone beads were excavated in the desert area of Mali where archeological sites revealed a continuum of culture from Neolithic times to the 18th century. This area was also a crossroads for trade, with stone beads reaching here from as far as China or India. Glass beads were also manufactured thanks to the influence of the strong and longlived glass working traditions of Egypt. A number of glass industries were uncovered in Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritania – making “kori” stones (from melting bottle glass), powder glass beads (from broken bottles and scrap glass), and “bodom” and “akoso” beads which came to be highly valued for their medicinal and magical powers, and were made with the wet core powder glass technique (the inner core of the bead being dark – held together by human saliva or honey or date juice). “Kiffa” beads from Mauritania were shaped by hand and fired without molds – polychromatic, triangular shaped. They became highly valued by the local population and ultimately by collectors, as they were seen to be made by craftsmen who had a gift from God, with every detail on the bead speaking of the craftsman’s personal interpretation of the universe. Magic, prayer and incantation all surrounded the making of these unique colorful beads.
Venice is one of Europe’s earliest beadmaking centers, emerging following the decline of those industries in Western Asia. Venice was able to take over the markets once dominated by India. Glass furnaces were discovered dating back to 600AD on the island of Torcello, a short distance from the city. The flourishing of glass making in the kingdom of Venice occurred between 1200 and 1400 AD as glass furnaces were moved to the island of Murano, to protect the city from risk of fire, and, very importantly, to insure and maintain secrecy (about their techniques), so they might maintain their monopoly of the glass bead market. The Venetian artisans were influenced both by the complex Egyptian and the Roman glass artifacts. The process of drawing hollow cane beads was reinvented and introduced to Murano. With this drawing process, mass production of beads in a wide range of sizes became possible. The different techniques that were experimented with and which made Venetian glass beads so unique were: drawn, wound, wound on drawn, molded, mold pressed, and blown. Wound glass involved the winding of molten glass around a metallic rod or wire. The drawn process involves drawn canes with a central hole which provides the raw material from which many identical beads can be created in a short time (diversity of shape and color and pattern).
In the late 1500’s bead-making was back in the city of Venice, and lampworking became a standard process for making beads, the winding of molten glass over oil lamps (a much simpler process than the drawn glass technique). Through Venice’s long history of glass-working, more than 100,000 varieties of glass bead types were produced. Glass seed beads and chevrons became the most popular in the bead trade. The Venetians also reinvented mosaic glass beads, using drawn technique of compound and composite canes, similar to the way the Romans crafted beads. They also invented molding techniques, though they weren’t widely used until the 1800s. By the early 19th century the Venetians had machinery to make perfectly round beads, and micro-beads. Napeoleon’s conquest in 1797 put an end to Venice’s domination of glass working in Europe. The industry declined and the workmen mainly moved to France. Though their monopoly so ardently guarded for centuries continued into the 18th century, eventually societies of Germany, Bohemia, and the Baltics, competed seriously enough to alter the balance.
Stone and glass beads were introduced to Indonesia by Indian and Chinese trade starting around 400 BC. For a long span of history (2nd c. to the 15th c AD), the Hindu and Buddhist societies thrived in Java, Sumatra, and Bali, having a strong influence on Indonesia’s artistic tradition. And by 100AD, the Indian traders had settled in along the trade routes, introducing their philosophy, literature, and bead-working traditions to Indonesia. The earliest beads that were excavated here were monochrome (predominately yellow, blue, or green), and were made from the drawn technique or from canes. Throughout SE Asia beads were used as amulets, to provide protection against death and disease, or to offer safe passage to the afterlife, thus the large presence of these beads found at burial sites throughout the landscape. Textiles used for ritual purposes were decorated elaborately with seed beads. Sacred rites and rituals were a huge underpinning of Indonesian life, with ceremonies being performed for many important undertakings: bride negotiations, building a home, planting crops. Food, music, costumes, gifts – all these came into play. In offering gifts of beaded textiles, they were essentially offering alignment with the good spirits and protection against the evil spirits. Beadwork in the ritual dress was thought to give the wearer strength.
The Pyu culture, which dates from 167 to 1044 AD was an important one in this region for the production of gold and glass beads. The Pyu migrated from Southwest China to central Burma before the Burmese. There were an advanced culture, and created richly furnished Buddhist monasteries and temples. Men often wore hats decorated with old flowers, and jeweled caps, while women decorated their hair with silver flowers, pearls and gems. Monochrome glass beads from the Pyu sites were similar to those exported in South India. Also excavated from these sites: stone and terracotta beads. Amethyst, carnelian, rock crystal, and agate were also discovered, though it was surmised that perhaps they had been imported. The Pyu created beads in the shape of tiny elephants, tigers, and birds – made from ruby and sapphire and jadeite. Their necklaces were composed of a mix of gold, glass, and stone beads. Their gold work was elegant indeed, with filigree and granulated spangles. They produced seals, as well, made in stone with Pyu script and intaglio. By around 1100, the Pyu culture, including their very accomplished craftsmen, were eventually submerged into the larger population of Burma because of the arrival of tribes from Yunnan (China).
Islamic art spans an enormous period – nearly 14 centuries – over three continents and many cultures. Wherever Islam spread, the artisans found a way to integrate local traditions with the Islamic motifs. In an effort to prevent idolatry, Islamic art evolved as one in which abstraction and symbolism dominated, any pictorial renderings of the divine being eliminated. There were four basic patterns of decoration in Islamic art: geometric, floral, calligraphic, and stylized animals and humans. There was a richness and a unified harmony in their artistic expression. The Islamic glassmakers were strongly influenced by the 4000 year old Egyptian bead working tradition, as well as the Roman work from the late 4th century AD. Islamic artists developed their own very particular style of dragged and trailed, feathered, and folded patterns in the glass work, the most original of these being the polychromed folded bead. The principal centers for beadmaking were: Egypt, Syria, and the Levant. As in so many cultures, beads were both status symbols as well as amulets, to be worn for recognition and protection by all members of society.
Jade beads were fashioned by the Olmecs, the Maya, and the peoples of Costa Rica during the period 1st C BC to about 600 AD. Jade – a blue colored variety of stone - was first discovered in pre-Classic Olmec tombs around 1000 BC – a blue colored stone. Later during the Classic Period (1st c AD), the jade that was excavated in areas throughout Guatemala appeared to be apple green in color. Most of our understanding of how jade was worn comes from the art on pottery and architectural panels. The Mayan people, like the Olmecs and Aztecs, considered jade more valuable than gold. The nobility of the Maya wore large quantities of jade beads, and were also buried with them. Most of the Mayan jade was imported from the region of Guatemala. One of the prime characteristics of jade beads was their irregularity, thought to b caused by its extreme hardness. The creation of jade beads came by grinding and polishing the stone, as it was too hard to flake, and couldn’t be cut into very easily. Because this process, the finished work often conformed to the stone’s original shape, and so we get to see an amazing variety of irregular stone beads in most collections of pre-Colombian jade.