When people find out I’m an archaeologist, I usually get incredibly positive reactions. Many people have wanted to be an archaeologist at some point in their lives or have some interest in it, so I don’t usually get negative reactions to that revelation.
And then they ask what I study. And I tell them the truth, because why would I lie?
I study beads. Specifically, I study maritime trade through beads.
And then the eyebrows cross and the mouth frowns and the brow furrows and people generally look very confused.
I don’t blame them – it’s a strange specialty. It’s not every day you meet an archaeologist, and it’s certainly not every day you meet one who studies something as weird as beads. It’s certainly not an answer they’re ever expecting, and it often catches people off-guard.
But then they get curious. Why beads? What can you find out from them? Do they really differ at all? How much is there to know?
And I start explaining about various types and how they were made and used and how we can trace them in trade routes around the world – some with far more success than others.
And then they realize there’s quite a lot to it, and you get questions like “So, do you know about beads that are used today or just ones in the past?” or “What about the beads that Native Americans use for their traditional clothing?” or “Were beads really made that long ago in human history?”
And once you start in on these conversations, people start to realize that beads really are everywhere. Necklaces, bracelets, iPhone cases, keychains, clothing, shoelaces, shoes, bags, purses, etc, etc, etc.
You know, at Mystic Seaport, there’s one building called the Chandlery, which is essentially the place that outfitted ships for going out to sea. I take groups in there all the time and just ask them what they see around them. And inevitably, as they’re looking around, they ask about five small boxes about the size of film canisters that are in a tiny display way at the back of the building. Those five boxes have thousands of seed beads in them, and the kids always ask about them.
And that’s when I get to tell them all about maritime trade and how important beads are. Even in a museum talking primarily about whaling, you find beads.
Because beads are everywhere.
So is it an odd topic? Sure. Is it fairly rare for an archaeologist to study beads? Yes. But these objects are just as important as any other, and when talking about trade and interaction, I can’t think of a better artifact to study.