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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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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