The Practicalities of Beading

I mentioned a couple weeks ago how I was going to start beading, and have now posted about two projects I’ve done with that. When I spoke about getting into beading, a lot of it was so that I could understand the practicalities of actually using beads and bridge the gap between archaeologists who study beads and modern craftspeople who use beads.

And within 20 minutes, I’d already begun to meet at least one of those goals.

Beads have been studied academically in a systematic manner since at least 1926, when Beck published his guide to classification and nomenclature. Archaeologists have studied bead manufacture for probably about as long. We’re aware that there is a lot of waste produced as a result of making glass beads, whether they’re wound or drawn (though drawing beads produce a LOT more waste).

But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen an archaeologist claim a site manufactured beads because they found a few that were oddly shaped or some where the perforation didn’t go all the way through. And because of that, many of those sites are treated as manufacture sites.

It took until about 2004 before a publication by Dr. Alok Kanungo wrote about unfinished beads, unusable beads, and waste materials getting mixed in with usable beads and being transported potentially very far from the place they were made. And at the time, that idea was incredibly new to bead studies and rather revolutionary in how we study bead trade.

It took archaeology about 80 years before someone both realized and published that waste could travel all the way to where a person strung the beads, and that such a place may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from where the beads were made.

I started beading two weeks ago. Within 20 minutes, I had a small pile on my table of beads that were broken, oddly formed, or had either too small a perforation or an incomplete one. As an archaeological site, some might say it’s a place of bead manufacture due to the waste on my table.

I don’t make beads. I would love to, but I don’t.

It took me 20 minutes of beading (at most) to realize something that many archaeologists didn’t discuss for nearly 80 years. At least, not in their publications.

My dad likes to tell a story about how a team of biologists went to a remote village in Africa to study a specific genus of bird. After 3 months, they approached the chief of the village and informed him that he had 35 species of this particular kind of bird. The chief patiently listened to the biologists, then called over a young boy. He said something to the boy, who disappeared. A few confused minutes passed (at least for the biologists) and the boy returned with the 36th species of bird, which the researchers had missed.

There’s something to be said for actually engaging in the activity you study, and there’s even more to be said for speaking to the people who are more experienced than yourself.

20 minutes of beading was all it took.

Personally, I’m excited to see what other things come out of it, and am looking forward to any conversations I might have with those more experienced in the world of beading than I am.


References Mentioned:

Beck, Horace C. 1926. Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants. Archaeologia 77: 1-76.

Kanungo AK. 2004. Glass Beads in Ancient India: An Ethnoarchaeological Approach. BAR International Series, 1242, John and Erica Hedges, Oxford.


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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One Response to The Practicalities of Beading

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #9 | Doug's Archaeology

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