Bead Subtypes

(The following is a written segment of research carried out as part of the St. Lawrence University Research Fellowship in 2010 and was presented in a University-wide conference that fall.  This piece discusses some of the most common subtypes of glass beads in Southeast Asia.  All drawings are my own.)

It is not possible to examine each subtype of glass bead over the course of eight weeks (for this fellowship), even if the number of subtypes is limited to those mentioned in archaeological texts of the region.  Reports only consistently and frequently mention about six subtypes other than Indo-Pacific beads, however, and only these six have anywhere near enough data for the type of analysis proposed by this study.  These are coil or wound beads, gold-foil or gold-glass beads, collar beads, segmented beads, eye beads, and zone beads.  The primary criterion for the selection of these subtypes was the availability of data.  These subtypes often merit attention in the literature and if a report mentions a special kind of bead, it likely belongs to one of these subtypes, which makes them ideal for study.

A second factor of selection was the standardization of these terms.  Since these beads are mentioned most often in site reports, the terms have become the most standardized when speaking of bead types.  Almost all reports include drawings or descriptions of these terms and often reference each other and similar sources, meaning that they are all working from the same definition of the term.  The same does not apply to pinched or paddled beads, for example, and it is my opinion that this is because there is a lack of a clear definition for these types of beads.  However, this is simply my own opinion and it could well be that there are simply very few pinched or paddled beads in the archaeological record, but that is still an argument against their use in this study.

Finally, this list of subtypes covers a variety of themes that we have seen emerging in the beads thus far.  These themes include method of manufacture, shape, and color use, or style, for lack of a better term.  In choosing these subtypes, I planned to find those with the most data and standardization, then to choose a selection which would encompass the above themes.  Once I had found those with data and standardization, however, I realized that they fit this third criterion with no extra help from me.  Both the coil and gold-foil beads are a specific style of manufacture, collar and segmented beads are general shapes, and eye and zone beads are specific styles of bead.  I feel that this gives a good spread of the different kinds of subtypes without being terribly overwhelming.  These subtypes should therefore give as good a sample of the available data as we can currently find.  I will provide a brief description of each subtype below.


Easily the most ubiquitous bead in Southeast Asia, Indo-Pacific (or IP) are small, drawn, monochrome beads no more than 6mm in diameter.  They are found throughout most of the world and are also commonly referred to as ‘seed beads’.  Note that a bead must meet all three criteria to classify as IP.  Some scholars will refer to a specific subset of IP beads as mutisalah, but that terminology is problematic (see a lengthier discussion here).

Example of an Indo-Pacific bead.


There are several different types of coil or wound beads, but often the literature only mentions that wound beads exist at a site, not which type.  In general, it is a bead made by winding the glass around a wire, then breaking it off to form a bead, though other techniques are known.  Since distinctions between types are not made in the literature, however, I am going to treat all wound beads as a single category.  While this may well prove to be extremely problematic and may result in large amounts of readjustment, for the moment, there is no other practical way to deal with the category.  According to some, over 50% of beads found at many sites in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sarawak, Malaysia , and large portions of beads at other Southeast Asian sites are wound.  We cannot ignore numbers this large, even if we cannot subdivide to the extent that we may like.  Hence, I will include wound beads in the study, even if somewhat hesitantly.

Currently, I have data for 22 sites in this category.

Example of a wound or coil bead.


Some scholars described these beads as a subtype of segmented beads, in which one tube of glass is covered with gold foil and slid into another tube.  The tubes are reheated and pinched at intervals along its length, creating segments that could then be cut into beads.  They can also be made with silver, which I will classify as gold-foil for now because the manufacturing technique is the same.  There are also very few sites with silver-foil beads, and so it makes sense to combine them with gold-foil.  Gold-foil beads are, clearly, gold in color and silver-foil silver.  They can be any size, but are often segmented or collared in shape.  Many scholars believe that they originated in the Middle East, probably in Egypt.  Some have tried to argue for Indian origins of the beads, but these views are not widely accepted.

I take slight issue with the description that these beads are a type of segmented bead, however, since I have seen collared gold-foil beads several times.  Either gold-glass beads are often segmented (but can also be collared or otherwise), or the class of segmented beads includes both gold-foil and collared beads.  Since the latter classification would be problematic to this study, I am treating gold-foil beads as a separate category of manufacture, which, theoretically, can take any number of shapes.

There is also evidence of false gold-foil beads made in and around Thailand.  These were made with a white inner tube and an amber outer tube, but with no gold in between.  For now, I will treat fake gold-foil beads as gold-foil beads, mostly because there is not much evidence for fake gold-foil on a site-by-site basis.  I do not wish to disregard fake gold-foil beads, since they were an imitation of the technique made with the intent of passing them off as the real thing.  I would rather treat them the same as the real thing than ignore them completely.

Gold-foil is currently the most numerous subtype in the bead database with a presence at 40 sites.  These sites range across South and Southeast Asia, with large numbers of gold-foil in Indonesian and Malaysian sites.


Collar beads are any bead which has a collar, or an attachment at the end of each perforation.  Collar beads can be any color and can also be gold-foil.  I have only seen reports of monochrome collar beads, though polychrome examples could exist.  They are also generally drawn from tubes of glass rather than wound around a wire.  Some scholars say that these beads are by-products of the Indo-Pacific bead industry, but only because it relies on the same manufacturing technology.  Thus, it probably is not a by-product in the general sense of the term and should be classed as a separate category of drawn bead.  Some also state that collar beads are rare outside South India and that evidence for their manufacture has never been found outside the subcontinent.  I am also not so sure of this statement, as 11 of the 27 sites in the database that present evidence of collar beads are in Southeast Asia.

Note that while there are many kinds of collared beads, I am treating them as a single, general category, just like the other bead subtypes.

Examples of collar beads.


Segmented beads look like several single beads fused together.  They are made from drawn tubes which are then pinched in specific places to form bulges.  These beads were often drawn, but we have seen evidence for wound specimens as well.  Apparently these beads can also be single beads which have been cut from the group of bulges, but I have not found anyone who distinguishes between types of segmented beads.  For now, I am treating all segmented beads the same, but we should note that when segmented beads are mentioned in reports and other text, the author is likely referring to those with multiple sections rather than these single-sectioned beads.

Segmented beads can also be any color or size, and have also been documented as gold-foil.  There are also reports of segmented eye beads.  There are currently 34 sites in the database with evidence of segmented beads.  It should be noted that because some scholars describe gold-glass beads as a type of segmented bead, then I have classified all sites with evidence of gold-glass beads by these scholars as also having segmented beads.  I have only done this for these scholars, and only for the sites mentioned specifically as having gold-glass beads, but that is the way these scholars seem to classify them, and so that is the way I have dealt with them.


Examples of segmented beads.


Eye beads elude concrete definition due to the many types of eye beads that may exist.  Given the variability, a concrete definition of eye beads is rather difficult to find.  Certain publications list several types of eye beads, the simplest of which is a bead with a matrix of a single color and spots of another.  However, these spots can be raised, superimposed, or infused and made of a single layer or multiple layers of various colors.  They can also appear on beads of stone or glass, wound, drawn, folded, or molded, and seem to span a range from England south to parts of Africa and east to Japan.  There is even overlap with the jatim style of bead (Jatim = Jawa Timur = East Java), in the mosaic cane eye beads we see there.

I would be inclined to ignore this subtype due to the broad spectrum of the classification, but I currently have 21 sites with documented eye beads, only four of which are outside Southeast Asia.  I have similar issues of characterization with the other subtypes and I believe that as long as each category remains very general, then I can still use the subtypes in the study.  For now, I am making a note every time an author mentions eye beads, regardless of specific eye type.  It seems to me that the motif itself is the driving force behind these beads, and while there may be patterns in the distribution of the classes of eye beads, for now it is better to treat them as a single entity with the understanding that they can eventually be further subdivided.

Example of an eye bead.


I am also hesitant to include zone beads, mostly because I only have about 13 sites for them so far.  If I am to include eye beads, though, then I would like to include another polychrome subtype with a distinguishable motif in order to compare the two groups.  Zone beads are also mentioned quite frequently, even if not in direct connection to a specific site, and so they seemed a good choice for a final category.  Zone beads are also often mentioned indirectly, such as a bead with white bands across the body or some other wording.  Hence, there may be more sites, but documentation of such beads is harder to find.

Zone beads have straight lines running at a right angle to the axis which continue full circle and divide the bead into zones.  The lines can be raised or impressed and the beads are often drawn, it seems, since the circles would not meet on a wound bead, and would instead become spirals.  That is, if a bead were wound using blue and white glass, then it would not be classed as a zone bead because the bead is not fully separated into different zones.  I suppose if a wound bead had a layer of glass molded onto it, then it may form different zones, but I have never seen evidence to suggest such a thing in Southeast Asia.

Example of a zone bead.

Finally, I wish to explain why I did not select certain subtypes that seem quite common in Southeast Asia.  Three clear examples are bird-star, jatim, and melon beads.  First, there is simply not enough data for a clear analysis of bird and star beads.  While they seem common in Southeast Asia, they are seldom mentioned in association with any particular site.  With so little data, analysis is nearly impossible.

For jatim, or East Javanese (Jawa timur) beads, there is not enough standardization of the term.  According to those who study them, there are 5 types of jatim beads, each of which differ markedly from the rest, which is far too many to use the term analytically.  I also hesitate to use jatim in a study which also uses eye beads, since one very common type of jatim bead is a mosaic cane eye bead.  There is too great a possibility of confusion between these terms, and so I have decided to leave jatim out.

As for melon beads, there is both not enough data and a confusion of terms.  Reports for only three sites mention melon beads directly, which makes analysis difficult.  In addition, melon beads are a specific type of gadrooned bead, and are therefore a subtype of a subtype.  I could use gadrooned as a general blanket term, but the lack of data makes me hesitant, and so I have left it out of the study.

Thus, the six subtypes above are found in Southeast Asia and also fit the three criteria mentioned before, making them the best suited for the study this summer.  Should any of them prove to be too difficult to work with, either because they are too general or because there is not enough data, then I will adjust the study accordingly.


About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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One Response to Bead Subtypes

  1. Pingback: East African Glass | Stringing the Past

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