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