Seed Beads

When talking about bead types, we can’t go very far without addressing seed beads. Seed beads are easily the most prolific bead type and even certain subcategories of seed beads have far more archaeological examples than nearly every other type of bead ever found or made.

Glass beads from the Philippines

Glass seed beads from the Philippines

Seed beads are basically defined as glass monochrome beads measuring less than 6mm in diameter.  That’s it. Certain subcategories have more specific definitions, but seed beads are basically small, monochrome beads. They can be wound, folded, molded, or drawn (though they’re usually drawn or wound) and they can be any color (so long as it’s just one color).

Seed beads are the most prevalent both in the archaeological record and in modern times probably because of their versatility. Since they are only one color, you can combine seed beads in a variety of ways to create an infinite number of forms, styles, and objects. This plays into the personal and cultural preferences of every individual and allows everyone to customize their bead creation to an infinite degree. Aside from the typical jewelry applications, I have seen seed beads sewn into intricate patterns on dresses, turned into what are essentially termed bead paintings, and placed in the pitch-filled eye sockets of a human skull to make eyes. I’ve seen them strung and twisted into animal shapes like dragons and fish and octopi. Seed beads appear on iPhone cases, keychains, and hair extensions. Do people use other beads this way? Sure, but not to the same degree. Seed beads provide a potential for patterning and design that simply doesn’t exist with polychrome beads, and their smaller size makes the lines in the picture or design smoother. Think of pixels on a computer screen – the bigger the size of the pixels, the chunkier the image is. Bigger monochrome beads make for chunkier designs and force twisted figurines to be bigger.

Seed beads in the eye sockets of an ancestor statue on display at the National Museum in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Seed beads in the eye sockets of an ancestor statue on display at the National Museum in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Seed beads are also easier to transport. You can fit far more of them in the same space you would put larger beads, which means you can sell more and make more money. For a merchant wanting to maximize profit or a ship captain wanting to maximize the number of groups he can trade with, smaller beads are better. And once people in major trade centers began using the smaller beads, the demand increased and the cycle was perpetuated.

So when it comes to beads, smaller certainly was mightier!

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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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4 Responses to Seed Beads

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #6 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Pingback: Indo-Pacific Beads | Stringing the Past

  3. Pingback: Project #2: Norse-Colored Necklace | Stringing the Past

  4. Pingback: Project #2: Norse-Colored Necklace | Stringing the Past

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