Stringing in the Past

Trying to figure out how I'm supposed to do this thing...On Saturday, I talked about the practical differences in making beaded hexagons with thread versus wire. Wire was harder to work with and made my piece bigger than I intended, but held the shape much better. Thread was easier to work with, but often folded on itself or got tangled easily.

And that’s when I realized something about beads in archaeology.

We never talk about how people strung them,  what they were strung on.

That seems like a pretty big mistake. Wire is completely different from thread. Also, different threads work differently, as far as I can tell. with wire, you don’t need a needle. You need a needle with thread, and you need a needle that can both fit through the bead and that you can easily thread.

And yet, there’s no real consideration in the archaeological record as to what they used to string the beads.

Part of that is because it rarely ever survives. We don’t really get the string preserved in the archaeological record, so how can we really know?

But there are ways of determining the types of thread used, I think. There must be certain elements of the fibers that are preserved in the perforation or some way to tell based on wear patterns. I haven’t really looked into it, but I feel like that ought to be possible at least to some degree.

And the archaeologists may well be sitting here saying, “Sure, its possible, but why does it matter?”

Because the string is as much a part of the finished object as the beads are. It holds them all together.

And with my Celtic-Mutisalah bracelet, I realized about halfway through that I really didn’t want to use white thread. Maroon thread or a rust-colored thread would have been better. It would have blended better. And that’s a big choice I would have made as an artist or just as someone who wanted to wear a bracelet.

What we use to string our beads is an incredibly important choice, and it was an important choice made by those in the past. Sometimes that choice is made by necessity, like my choice to use wire. Other times, it’s made out of artistic choice or the preference of the person purchasing the work. Still other times it depends on religious or spiritual reasoning or available resources or whatever the person can afford.

We spend so much time talking about the beads, let’s start remembering that the string is equally important.

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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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2 Responses to Stringing in the Past

  1. Pingback: Stringing in the Past 2 | Stringing the Past

  2. Pingback: Supply and Demand for Beads | Stringing the Past

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