Issues with subtypes

One thing I’m noticing as I write my honors thesis is that subtypes of beads aren’t the best method of analysis.  Subtypes operate on too many factors (shape, method of manufacture, size, color, decoration, etc.) to be of much use in an analysis.  It’s better to separate each of these factors and analyze them separately rather than the various combinations of these factors in each subtype.

This is especially true for those subtypes that are ill-defined or whose terminology is not wholly standardized.  For instance, IP beads vs. mutisalah vs. trade-wind beads are usually treated as synonyms, but they are really separate terms denoting separate types of beads.  Using them interchangeably causes numerous problems and hinders our ability to analyze their use in the past.

We also must remember that our classification of beads in the present could have little or no resemblance to the classification of beads in the past.  Thus, calling something and Indo-Pacific bead creates a modern category of a past object.  There is no evidence that such a category existed in the past, which makes the classification even more dangerous.  No, we cannot necessarily know how beads were classified in the past, and yes, our divisions between colors, shapes, etc. are just as modern in their bases, but the classification of IP beads not only creates modern classifications of beads, but also groups multiple modern classifications of beads into a single modern-based type.  Using modern classes of color or shape to describe and compare beads is acceptable, but using a group of modern classes to create a modern typology is dangerous.  It takes our minds away form the idea that beads could have held different classifications in the past and has us looking for patterns among ancient artifacts using modern typologies.  Such patterns may not have meant much because they are based on categories that we created, with no real evidence that such categories existed in the past.


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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