Bead Bias: Looking at Materials Besides Glass

Not many people look at beads in the archaeological record.  Very few look at beads in archaeological assemblages in Britain.  Of the people who look at beads, though, the vast majority look at beads made of glass.

I love glass beads.  I adore them.  You should see me when someone hands me a bead – I honestly freak out.  My friends have said that they need to give me a chill pill before handing me a bead, because I get way too excited.

I love glass beads.

But I also love other beads.  Beads rock.  I don’t really care what they’re made of – glass, amber, rock crystal, agate, carnelian, jade, jet, amethyst, shell, bone, terracotta, whatever.  Beads are awesome. Period.

But there’s a bit of a bias in archaeology in terms of the literature associated with beads.  The largest body of research looks at glass beads.  There is also a sizable amount of work on stone beads, though much of that focuses on South, Southeast, and East Asian material.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything looking at stone beads in Europe, but I also haven’t spent huge amounts of time looking.  Also, when it comes to stone beads, most work has centred on agate and carnelian beads and not so much any other type of stone.

There is virtually no literature looking at amber beads.  There is almost nothing on shell beads.  Or bone.  Or terracotta.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t any research done on these beads, but the literature is severely lacking.

Also, when beads like amber or rock crystal or shell appear in the literature, they are usually mentioned only in terms of how many there are: “eight amber beads were found” or “a few beads of rock crystal were recovered.”  With glass or carnelian or agate, there is at least the general tendency to speak of colour or shape, whereas these other materials are only mentioned.  Even in studies where amber beads make up over half of the data, they are still not examined in detail – only the number of amber beads at each site is given.

But beads of these materials differ amongst themselves in shape and colour, just as glass and agate and carnelian beads do.  Granted, glass has a very wide range of potential colours, but that doesn’t make the colour range of rock crystal or carnelian any less interesting or potentially important.

Bead studies in archaeology needs more people studying beads.  But we also need more people studying a wider variety of materials, and we need bead specialists to be literate in more than one material.   Glass is cool, but so are all these other materials being used.  And the variety of material used in the past begs the question: if we only limit ourselves to one material of beads, then can we really come to an understanding of that type of object in the past?

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Branching Out from Archaeology

Archaeologists often pride themselves in being interdisciplinary.  We study objects, landscape, geology, environmental science, biological science, chemistry, art, history, craft production, literature, physics, philosophy, agriculture, husbandry, and the list can honestly go on and on and on.

One thing we don’t do so well with is admitting that a non-archaeologist may have valuable insight into our problem. Continue reading

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Glass Chemistry Cheat Sheet

glass chem

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The Chemical-Visual Divide in Bead Archaeology

Last week I wrote a post about issues with bead reporting.  One of the steps I suggested for improving our current system was for bead specialists to stop dividing themselves into those who look at chemical analysis and those who look at essentially everything else (what I’m calling visual characteristics).  Since very few people reading this post are familiar with the issue, I figured I would explain it in a bit more detail. Continue reading

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The Chaos of Bead Reporting

Beads are incredibly common in the archaeological record and date back well into the Neolithic if not before.  Shell, bone, amber, stone, glass, clay, and metal have all been turned into beads over the millennia and they appear at far more sites than you might think.  I know of at least 140 sites in Anglo-Saxon period England with glass beads alone.

Beads are everywhere. Continue reading

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Visual Classification of Beads

Beads come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and materials.  They can be manufactured in a number of ways and have any combination of decorations and alterations to their form.  So few people study glass beads that there is no standard method for discussing or classifying them.  Continue reading

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3D Modeling and Bead Studies

Last night I attended a lecture by Stuart Jeffrey from the Glasgow School of Art about the digital modeling of archaeological sites, structures, and artefacts.  Using various technologies (often but not always involving lasers), we can create 3D models of an object and then (in the case of artefacts) use a 3D printer to make a replica. Continue reading

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Chemical Issues

In order for chemical analysis of glass to really work in terms of sourcing where the glass is coming from, we have to assume that each glass-making workshop has its own unique chemical signature.  Otherwise, we can’t use chemistry to source the glass. Continue reading

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Roman Influence

If we look at beads found at sites in Britain from the pre-Roman Iron Age through the Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 1000 years), we can easily see Roman influence.  You might be surprised to think we can see such a thing in such small objects (generally less than 1cm in diameter), but we can. Continue reading

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Science and the Dissemination of Knowledge

I am a huge proponent of sharing scientific knowledge.  Heck, if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have this blog (or Rantin’ and Rovin’).  It saddens me how many scientific journals require subscriptions in order to view the articles they publish or how many online databases charge roughly £30 just to gain access to one article for a single week. Continue reading

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