Friday, March 28, 2014

Behold, the Mighty Bead

Our return to an informal blog format has brought us to the letter “b”.  This week’s focus is on beads, their impact on culture and their significance in the archaeological record. Most people immediately associate beads as an object for personal adornment, but beads also have traditionally been associated with power and significance within society.  The mere definition of bead is an indicator of its role in society. The English word ‘bead’ is sourced to the Old English word biddan which means to pray and immediately leads to the significance of beads in religious practices. Beads recovered in archaeological excavations range from natural materials such as bone, shell and stone to elaborately ornate glass beads. Their recovery provides an invaluable instrument for archaeologists in examining both their cultural significance and the dating of archaeological contexts.

assortment of bone and shell beads

catlinite beads

The earliest reported beads are from a rockshelter site in Lebanon, Ksar Akil , where beads have played a significant role in dating the arrival of modern humans in the Middle East.  Radiocarbon dating of twenty perforated marine shells indicates that the beads are between 41,000-35,000 years old. The perforated shells of a small marine snail were found in association with the skeleton of a young Homo sapien female during excavations at the rockshelter in 1937-38. A large valve shell, similar in form to a clam shell was not perforated, but its surface was covered with a bright red pigmentation.  This radiocarbon date is slightly more recent than some other European remains which range from 45,000 to 38,000 years ago. Archaeologists continue to exam recovered remains and radiocarbon dates in our efforts to understand trade relations and early migration routes of modern humans.

The cultural significance of beads as an indicator of status can be traced in part to the social organization of early hunting and gathering bands. .  These groups were generally small (less than 25 men women and children) but their size changed depending on available food resources. During the dry season, when animals congregated in large herds, hunting and gathering bands would also join together in cooperative groups to exploit these herds. Rituals that developed during these hunts served to reinforce cohesive relationships and solidified the complexity of social order necessitated by increased populations. Social organization and the development of hierarchical societies can be traced through paintings, beginning with cave art in Europe and in burial practices. Research and analysis into the placement and quantities of beads in burial units provides evidence of the significance placed on beads by various cultures.

Barry C. Kent’s publication Susquehanna’s Indians established the framework for understanding the culture sequence of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley, much of it based on the glass bead trade network.  Kent also examined bone, shell and stone materials utilized in bead manufacture at sites dating as early as the late 1500’s.  Bone and ground stone beads are virtually non-existent by the mid-Sixteenth century, replaced by European glass trade beads.  Shell beads continue to appear in measurable quantities on these sites and colonial records provide evidence of the monetary exchange of wampum between colonists and Indians. Kent offers that “the colonial manufacture of wampum had become, by the second half of the 17th century, fairly large.”  Wampum beads were an important commodity to Indian cultures and demonstrates the significant value placed on the shell bead.

wampum trade beads

Recent research by Duane Esarey of the marine shell trade provides new insights into the expansive Dutch trade network.  The manufacture of wampum beads by coastal Indians in New Netherland dates to between 1605-1610 with beads recognized as being small and relatively uniform in shape.  New Netherland is defined as the Dutch colonial province from Delaware to Connecticut.  The introduction of metal tools to native groups facilitated increased production of wampum by coastal tribes.  Inland groups who did not have ready access to coastal shell, soon found wampum available through the Dutch fur trade network. By 1650 large quantities of wampum and other bead forms appear and concerns were raised over the devaluation of wampum in the trade process.  Esarey examined the distribution of standardized marine shell (SMS) collections throughout the Middle Atlantic region and observed standardized designs across sites with various cultural affiliations.  Archaeologists had previously attributed these designs to native peoples exclusively, but his research proposes a commercial effort between the European markets focused on the value of shell objects to tribes.

shell necklace

The fur trade also brought glass beads to native peoples and it is this bead form that has developed into as Kent states “our most important class of trade objects for dating historic-period Indian sites.” Archaeologists have developed a trade bead chronology based on excavations over the past 40 plus years and is a research tool that continues to update the temporal ordering of  bead types. Kent developed a bead sequence chronology for the Susquehannock sites based on his examination of over “one hundred ten thousand beads derived from 13 sites covering a time span from about 1575 to 1760 A.D.”  Kidd & Kidd’s 1970 publication “Classification System for Glass Beads” provided a standard by which Kent was able to create a bead sequence which established the framework for archaeologists to continue to update and refine site dates. The volume of glass beads recovered archaeologically is clearly an indicator as to their “value” not only for the native peoples who traded for them, but also to the Europeans who were producing them.

bead chronology developed by Kent

 The anthropological focus on glass beads examines the placement of beads within burials, examining quantities, placement, color and multiple other factors in order to try to understand the symbolism placed upon beads by Indians.  We can’t fully define the significance of beads to native groups in the 17th and 18th century, but the inherent value placed upon beads for thousands of years is apparent.  The beadwork traditions carried out by native groups today are coveted and treasured not only for their beauty, but for their continuation of cultural traditions.

beaded moccasins

The concept that such a small object can mean so much to so many is inconceivable, and yet the archaeological record has demonstrated this concept across cultures, time periods and continents. We hope that you have enjoyed this prevue into beads and it will encourage you to think about the function this object has assumed for thousands of years and will presumably continue to hold for many thousands to come.

small glass seed bead

 watch a video of glass bead manufacturing

Dubin, Lois Sherr
The History of Beads: from 30,000 B.C. to the Present, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1987.

Esarey, Duane
Another Kind of Beads: A Forgotten Industry of the North American Colonial Period. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013.

Kent, Barry C.
Susquehanna’s Indians, Anthropological Series, Number 6, Commonwealth of                                              Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg,1993.

Kidd, Kenneth E. and Martha Ann Kidd
A Classification system for glass beads for the use of field archaeologists. Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional papers in Archaeology and History 1:45-89. National Historic Sites Service, National and Historic Park Branch, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1970.

Smith, Julian

An Examination of Historic Trade, American Archaeology, Vol.18, No.1, Spring 2014.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Pros and Cons of hunting with an atlatl versus hunting with the bow and arrow Or why was the bow and arrow invented in the Old World 15,000 years ago but was not being used in the New World until a 1000 years ago?


“A” is for arrow head and atlatl. This week we are going to briefly compare atlatl or spear thrower technology with archery technology. In Europe, Asia and Africa based on cave paintings and the reduced size of spear points, the bow and arrow replaces the atlatl between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. In eastern North America, based on the widespread use of small triangular projectile points known ethnographically to be arrow points, it is generally agreed that archery technology doesn’t appear until the Late Woodland or Late Prehistoric period, at approximately 1000 AD. The obvious question is why did it take so long? If the bow and arrow is such a great invention, it should have come over with the first migration of Paleoindians or at least shortly thereafter. However, maybe archaeologists are wrong in their assumption about triangular points representing the first appearance of the bow and arrow and  there are older arrow points, dating to the Archaic or even Paleoindian period (10,000 - 11,200 B.P.), that were being used on arrows that aren’t recognized as such.

The problem with determining the use of the bow and arrow (or the atlatl for that matter) is that almost all of the components are made from perishable (organic) materials and are very rarely found in the archaeological record. The stone point is all that is left. Over the past decade, archaeologists have been examining the dating of the archery system in the New World. Much of this work is experimental, using bow and arrow and atlatl replicas to determine the characteristics of each. It turns out that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

Spear thrower technological system - consists of a wooden spear thrower and an arrow-like dart, one to three meters in length with fletching or feathers for stability in flight. The use of the atlatl dates to at least 25,000 years ago and probably tens of thousands of years earlier. It requires considerable skill but it clearly represents an improvement over the hand held spear. The dart can be propelled up to 50 meters although there is a reduction in accuracy beyond 27 m (Hutchings and Bruchert 1997:892).  This has advantages while stalking animals but it also provides protection for the thrower from the animal or in warfare, the enemy. The speed varies between 20 m/s and 30 m/s (Tomka 2013: 563). Because of its weight, “the kinetic energy and momentum of a dart at impact tends to be relatively high” (Tomka 2013:562). Therefore, it is particularly effective against large (bison) and medium (deer) size prey. Compared to the bow and arrow, the atlatl could be used with one hand and it was not affected by moisture as much as the bow and arrow. However, it is more difficult to use in a dense forested environment than in a more open setting.

Archery technological system - consists of a bow constructed of one to three pieces of wood and a fletched arrow. The effective killing distance on medium size prey using a typical Indian bow is 45 meters (Tomka 2013: 562) and this is almost twice as effective as the atlatl. The speed of an arrow is almost twice as fast as that of an atlatl dart (Tomka 2013: 563). It works well in a woodland environment and it could be used while moving compared to the stationary stance required of the atlatl (Railey 2010:263). The increased speed of the arrow improved accuracy and penetrating power making it a somewhat more lethal system on small to medium sized animals (deer), but not large animals. In addition, the speed reduced the time prey had to escape.

            In general, the spear thrower is more effective in somewhat open settings and against large animals that are slow to respond to attack. Archery is most effective on medium to small animals, especially in forested settings.

            Recently, archaeologists (see the additional reading list) have been measuring projectile points in order to identify changes in size to identify the appearance of the bow and arrow archaeological contexts. Unfortunately, the results have not been conclusive so the timing of bow and arrow technology remains unclear. Based on performance characteristics, its introduction into the New World probably depended on regional conditions along with cultural factors. During Paleoindian times, the atlatl may have been the preferred hunting weapon in the open forest of the Late Pleistocene era (11,700 years ago). In contrast, bow and arrow technology may have replaced the atlatl during the Archaic period when hunting deer and elk in the closed forest of the eastern woodlands. However, in the Great Plains of the American West, the atlatl would have been very effective in hunting large animals such as elk and bison and it may have been used until very late in prehistory.

We hope you have enjoyed this week’s blog. It highlights a significant but poorly understood technological transition in North America. It also highlights the fact that the archaeological record can be very challenging even when dealing with significant cultural changes. This blog is based on a research paper being prepared by Pochereth Payne who is working on her senior thesis at Mercyhurst College in Erie. She conducted research in our lab in August of 2013. This represents another example of the opportunities the State Museum has to offer to students that will enhance their educational experience and professional careers.

Additional reading  
Hamm, Jim
1991    Bows and Arrows of the Native Americans: A Step-by-Step Guide to Wooden Bows. Guilford: The Lyons Press.

Hildebrandt, William R., Jerome H. King
2012    Distinguishing Between Darts and Arrows in the Archaeological Record: Implications for Technological Change in the American West. American Antiquity 77(4):789-799.

Hutchings, W. Karl and Lorenz Bruchert
1997    Spear Thrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research. Antiquity 71: 890-897.

Justice, Noel D.
1987    Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States: A Modern Survey and Reference.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 

Jochim, Michael.
2011    The Upper Paleolithic. In European Prehistory: A Survey 2nd Edition. Sarunas Milisauskas, editor. Pp. 67-118. New York: Springer.

Lombard, Marlize, and Miriam Noël Haidle
2012    Thinking a Bow-and-arrow Set: Cognitive Implications of Middle Stone Age Bow and Stone-tipped Arrow Technology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22:237-264.

Mason, Otis
1894    North American Bows, Arrows, and Quivers. Technical Report for 1893. Washington D.C. The Smithsonian Report.

Nuttall , Zelia
1891    The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology.

Rhodes, Harry
2013    Taking Ownership of Distance in the Stone Age with Spear, Atlatl, and Archery: Prehistoric Weapon Systems and the Domination of Distance. Comparative Civilizations Review 69:45-53.

Shott, Michael J.
1997    Stones and Shafts Redux: The metric Discrimination of Chipped-Stone Dart and Arrow Points. American Antiquity 62(1) 86-101.

Tomka, Steve
2013    The Adoption of the Bow and Arrow: A Model Based on Experimental Performance Characteristics. American Antiquity 78(3) 553-569.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .