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.  This can be a good thing, because when we find completely new forms of beads, we don’t have to worry about how they will fit into our standard system – there isn’t one.  The downside is that each archaeologist looking at beads has a tendency to classify and document them in a different way, making it very difficult to compare information or datasets.  In addition to that, many archaeologists documenting or reporting about beads are not bead specialists per se, and so they don’t necessarily recognise that they are leaving out some pretty vital information.

But there are a few things bead specialists need for their research, and all of us record these in some fashion or another.

Site Name

This may seem like a no-brainer, and it applies more to those discussing beads that those writing site reports, but I cannot tell you how many times I have seen something like “Beads are found in East Java.”  Giving the site name is imperative.

Find Number/Museum Collection Number

Again, fairly straightforward, but if you don’t record the find number or the museum collection number, then there is a good chance neither you nor anyone else will be able to figure out which bead it is you are talking about.  There are a LOT of small, drawn, translucent blue-green beads in the world – record the number!


When I record beads, I refer specifically to the general shape outlined by Beck (1928    Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants. Archaeologia).  I don’t mind people who use terms like annular or globular, since I have seen them so much that I know what they mean and can translate them into Beck.  But the system I’ve found works best when looking at material from multiple regions is to describe the general shape using Beck’s chart.

Note: I don’t include things like segmentation or collaring or anything else in this category – I put those under ‘modifications’.  I use Beck to get the general shape, then note any modifications to that shape in another category.  Many people might disagree with me on this, but again, I’ve found that’s the easiest way to work with a scenario like single segmented beads versus triple segmented beads – the two are very different shapes, but they share the modification of segmenting.


This includes anything like segmentation, collaring, faceting or any other modifications to the general shape.  If the shape is unique and difficult to describe, I usually say “miscellaneous” under this category and describe the modifications in my notes section.  Otherwise I list whatever modification it has.  Usually, only one modification is used on the shape, like segmenting or collaring – I’ve never seen a combination of them, though they could theoretically exist.


Colour has a number of subcategories, depending largely on how many colours the bead has.  The first colour (I often list this as “Colour 1”) should always be the main colour, the base colour.  After that should be the colour with the next largest use, and the next and the next until you’ve recorded all the colours on the bead.  Many beads are one colour, so that’s simple enough, but some can have many colours, particularly the closer you get to modern beads.

Everyone has their own system of recording colour, some of which are helpful and others of which are not.  Munsell does have a bead colour chart, but it’s incredibly expensive and not always helpful due to the difficulty of recognising the difference between certain colours in the chart.  I’m currently working on a simpler colour chart, which I’m testing on some finds from Orkney.  If it works, I’ll post it here and let you know.

Until a better colour system comes about, though, your best bet is to list each colour the way you might describe colours of soil.  What’s the primary hue? Blue. And the secondary hue? Green. So the colour is a greenish blue (think crayola’s green-yellow versus yellow-green).  You can add light and dark (please do), since those might indicate different chemicals used, different colour preferences, etc.  Whatever you do, whether you list the primary hue first or second, be clear about what you are doing and be consistent with it.  Many might use yellowish green to describe a green with hints of yellow, but then use blue-green to describe a blue with hints of green (don’t worry, even Crayola does this, which you can see from their colour charts online).  If you describe the first one as yellow-green, then the second one should be green-blue.  The second should only be described as blue-green if you also describe the first one as green-yellow.

Another thing to remember is that colour changes depending on your lighting.  This is important for two reasons.  First, if you look at beads in all different lights, then your recording of colour is going to be skewed and probably unreliable.  Second, certain colours of beads appear one colour (say, black), but if you shine a light through them, you find that they are actually a different colour (like dark green, blue, purple, or brown).  If you see something like that, you should record both the colour the bead appears in normal light and the colour it appears with a light shone through.  I’m curious to see if these beads would have shown that colour when held up to candlelight rather than an LED or standard flashlight, since that would be the light available to the people using the beads, but that’s also still in the works.


If a bead has more than one colour, this is where I describe the pattern the colours make on the bead.  There are some regional typologies for these, but the possibilities are numerous.  If a bead is millefiori, I would list it here as well as under manufacture.


I use three categories here: opaque, translucent, and transparent.  If light can’t shine through, it’s opaque.  If light can shine through, but you can’t see clearly through the class, then it’s translucent.  If light can shine through and you can see colours and shapes through the glass, then it’s transparent.  That’s it – it’s pretty straightforward.


Beads can be drawn, wound, folded, moulded, layered, foiled, mosaic, millefiori, or chevron.

Drawn beads are distinguished by striations and bubbles running parallel to the perforation.

Wound beads tend to have striations and bubbles running perpendicular to the perforation (if they have them at all).  Wound beads also often have a tail on either or both ends.

Folded beads are made by winding glass around itself rather than in successive rows.  Folded beads sometimes have a line running from one end to the other where the glass overlaps.

Moulded (or pressed) beads are made by pouring glass into a mould complete with a piece for making the perforation

Layered beads can be a drawn or wound or folded core with another folded layer on top of it, usually of a different colour (e.g. a white bead with a red core).

Foiled beads consist of an inner core of glass (usually colourless) that has a layer of metal foil applied (often gold or silver, sometimes lead) and another layer of glass folded on top (often colourless or amber, but sometimes other colours like a deep blue or a bright red).

Mosaic beads are made by laying pieces of mosaic glass onto a core.  Mosaic glass is made by melting canes of glass together to form a picture and then cutting very thin sections off in order to create a sheet of patterned glass.  Sometimes the craftspeople will draw out the block of canes in order to essentially shrink the size of the mosaic layers, letting them create more intricate designs.

Millefiori beads are not the same as mosaic beads, despite many scholars using the term interchangeably.  Millefiori means “thousand flowers” and is done by creating a core, layering it with many different colours (often six or more), and using a thin rod to mould the glass into a flower shape before it cools.  At least one outer layer is folded around the flower pattern to make a circular cane.  This cane may be turned into beads immediately or may undergo the process used to make mosaic beads.  You can have a millefiori mosaic bead, or a millefiori bead, or a mosaic bead, but the terms designate distinct processes and are not interchangeable.

Chevron beads are made by layering large numbers of glass into a star shape either through a mould technique or that used in millefiori.  The beads are then ground down in various ways to reveal the layering pattern beneath.  These beads tend to date later than the others, appearing around the 14th century in Italy.


There are three main dimensions you should record for size: length, diameter, and perforation diameter.  Sometimes beads will have a varied diameter, in which case record the maximum and minimum.  All size measurements should be done in millimetres and should be taken out to the first decimal point.


I’m also working on a set way to describe the amount of bubbles.  This gives us an insight into manufacture more than fashion preferences.  Certain regions use bubbles as an opacifying technique, and sometimes lots of bubbles can indicate more amateur work.  For now, saying something like “none”, “few”, “moderate”, and “many” will do the trick.


Always take photos, because you will always wish you had.  I usually lay the bead with the perforation up, snap a photo, flip it upside-down to get the other perforated side, and then take one photo of the bead standing on its side.  It if doesn’t balance, I often bend a paperclip to provide a make-shift stand for it.  If there is something distinct about the bead, I will photograph it, but I tend to have three photos for each bead.  Remember to use a scale, consistent lighting, and either a black, blue, or white background.  Also remember to record which photos correspond to which bead, because there are a LOT of small blue translucent beads in the world and we need to know which photos match which records.


Anything that doesn’t fit into the above categories, but seems significant.  This is usually where I put variations in colour depending on light or interesting/odd deformities or shapes.  I also write how many segments it has (if segmented), questions or suspicions I might have, or possible evidence of recycling.


Wherever the bead is right now – what museum collection it’s in or who owns it.  If it’s on a necklace or a string, which string/necklace it’s on and its position on said string/necklace.


Any source that might mention the bead specifically, or any sources that I got the data from.  If I viewed the item myself, I note that here as personal observation.

And that’s generally where I leave it for each bead.  I know this seems like a lot, but honestly each bead takes perhaps five minutes, and that’s usually due to photography snafus.


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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2 Responses to Visual Classification of Beads

  1. Pingback: The Chaos of Bead Reporting | Stringing the Past

  2. Pingback: The Chemical-Visual Divide in Bead Archaeology | Stringing the Past

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