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.
Yet, when archaeologists discuss beads in a site report, for example, the most common sentence I see is, “Beads were also found.” I’m sorry to go on a bit of a rant here, but this honestly tells me next to nothing. I know is that beads are there, but that’s it. What material? What colour? What size, shape, style of manufacture? Where were they found? What were they found with? How many were found? The list goes on.
The second most common sentence I see is, “Glass beads were also found.” This at least tells me the material, but again, that only answers one of the long list of questions above. It’s better, sure, but not by much.
Most reports say something along the lines of “Five amber beads and two glass beads (one translucent green and one opaque yellow) were uncovered near the waist of burial 5.”
Now we’re doing a LOT better than the previous sentences – I know how many of each material, I even know how many of each colour for glass and the diapheneity, and I know where in the site they were found and any other associated finds. This is almost like Christmas come early.
See, I still don’t know the shape of these beads or how they were manufactured. I don’t know the size either. Also, while I know that I have one green and one yellow bead, there are many different shades of both colours that might appear in glass. We’ve narrowed down the colour, but we’re still not as specific as I would like us to be.
Basically, there’s still a lot of information missing. There are some reports that tell you everything – size, shape, colour, manufacture, context, etc. These reports really are like Christmas, but (like Christmas), you don’t get them as often as you really want (or, in terms of research, need).
So why does this happen? Why do we have so many issues with reporting beads?
There are a few reasons, honestly, and none of them are really anyone’s fault per se.
1. It’s really hard to find beads in archaeology. Most beads are roughly 3-5mm in diameter. When caked in dirt, beads look a lot like small rocks. Add to that the fact that most of the sieves used in archaeology have 6mm mesh (i.e., the holes are 6mm square), and most beads just fall through onto the spoil heap. You might say “Just use a finer mesh”, but you have to weight a decision like that against the extra time it would take to go through all the dirt. If we’re excavating a burial, we’re more likely to use a finer mesh (since we can expect finer, smaller objects like beads or bone), but in a typical excavation, it’s usually 6mm mesh.
2. Due to their size and generally similar shape (compared to things like pottery), beads seemed relatively uniform. There are only so many shapes and colours of beads that we see, and many of them are incredibly similar if you haven’t stared at a large number of beads for a very long time. When archaeologists did find beads, there generally wasn’t much of a clear difference between them and early archeaologists doubted their use in being able to tell us about the past.
3. Beads weren’t generally seen as important in archaeology until the 1930s, long after beads started appearing in the archaeological record. It was really the 1920s when Horace Beck published his tome on how to describe beads and pendants in the archaeological record. This publication was so important to research on beads that much of it is still used today, nearly 100 years later. Only once publications like these appeared and archaeologists started to really look at the number of combinations that existed for various bead characteristics did we really begin to grasp the extent of information that we could glean from these objects.
4. Not many archaeologists know how to report beads or what information is important. Even though we now know beads are important and there are many, many publications talking about beads, there are still very few people actively studying beads in archaeological contexts compared to other more popular object types like vessels, weapons, or animal bones. Bead specialists are not impossible to find, but the list is certainly not a long one.
Because so few people actively study beads as a specialty, those reporting the beads are generally unable to list all the information the specialists would like, simply because they either don’t know what that information is or, if they do, they aren’t comfortable making such distinctions as a non-specialist. Bead specialists don’t really help much with this. There is a tendency for the categories used for each characteristic (i.e. shape, colour, etc) to vary between individuals and even between studies of the same individual. We’re working on it, and we’ve gotten better at standardising our data over the last few decades. But the fact remains that we have a very hard time communicating a systematic approach to each other, let alone fellow archaeologists not specialising in beads.
So what now? Why does this matter? I’ve just told you a lot of the issues we have with bead data, and now we get to the part where we try to fix it (otherwise this would just be a rant). So what do we do?
1. Bead specialists can work to standardise how we record information. A single system for all bead materials in all regions is probably asking far too much, but we can work to become more standardised than we are currently. We can also work to be more consistent in the terms we use between our own studies and explicitly explain any changes we may make so that our reports can connect to each other.
2. Those discussing beads in excavation reports can either brush up on how bead specialists would like that information to be handled or allow a bead specialist to comment on the bead assemblages. This is becoming incredibly common practice now in certain areas, though it can still be improved pretty much everywhere. If you’re curious about becoming more in-tune with bead research, check out my post on the basics of visual recording.
3. Bead specialists can stop dividing themselves on the lines of chemistry versus visual analysis. This is actually a larger problem that it may seem, in that someone only conversant in visual analysis rarely mentions any details about the chemistry of the beads (which is often highly important), and those who specialise in bead chemistry rarely discuss the visual characteristics of the beads in a useful manner. If we are to move forward, we need to do so with knowledge of both areas of bead research and be conversant in both. Otherwise we will continue to have disjointed reports on beads.
There are a large number of of other factors at work and a large number of other things we can do to improve bead studies (including non-archaeologists would be a good start!). These steps I suggest are only the tip of the iceberg, and they are not going to be all that simple, but we need to start moving in this direction so we can begin to solve some of the issues that we’re having.
As always, feel free to comment below – it’s a complex issue and I won’t even think of pretending to have the answers, but I’m very interested in having a discussion!