Polychrome Beads

Polychrome 1Last week, I posted the final article on various colors of beads and also posted about documenting polychrome beads. This week, we’re going to start getting into the insanity that is polychrome beads and the various designs these beads have.

As with monochrome beads, I will take on a single type of bead each day. Generally speaking, these will be glass beads. While there are polychrome stone beads, there is not nearly as much variability in the designs for stone polychrome beads. But people figured out pretty quickly that you can do almost anything by combining different colors of glass, and a number of these designs have been popular the world over for thousands of years (cough, eye beads, cough).

Polychrome 3Before we get into specific designs, though, let’s talk about polychrome beads in general. They tend to be either glass, ceramic, or stone. Some are painted wood, though I have very little experience with those. Wood tends to decompose quickly, so finding wooden beads in archaeology is quite rare.

onyx beadPolychrome stone beads tend to be strategically cut, natural pieces of stone. While you can alter the color of stone beads (often through heating), beadmakers didn’t really combine different colors of stone in the way they did glass. That doesn’t mean polychrome stone beads aren’t pretty – they’re gorgeous. They’re just made a different way, and therefore have a much smaller variety of designs.

Polychrome ceramic beads are simply not my strong suit. I don’t generally find ceramic beads from the first millennium AD, and if I do, they are usually monochrome. But polychrome ceramic beads are possible, and can have many similar designs to polychrome glass beads.

Polychrome 5Glass is by far the favorite material for polychrome beads. Because glass is melted down, you can put any type of glass or any color in nearly any design on a bead. These designs can be added to the outside of the beads and raised up, creating a texture on the bead itself. They can be added to the surface and marvered in, so that the bead remains rounded and smooth. chevronThey can be a part of the glass matrix from the beginning, added before a bead is even formed. They can be cut into mosaic pieces and attached as an outer layer of the bead. They can me poured into molds in a millefiori fashion, or they can be layered on top of each other and then sanded down, as we see in chevron beads.

Polychrome beads make up between 10-15% of the beads I examine. That doesn’t sound like much, but they often provide the largest variation in cultural preferences for beads, and they tend to be found in burials, with individuals. Polychrome beads have been popular since they began and have exploded in popularity today. So it’s only fitting that we take a large number of posts looking at each of these designs.

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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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