Viking Era Glass Beads

A tenth century Arab king once said that the Vikings would “go to any length to get hold of coloured beads”. Beads of all varieties have been connected to the ancient Scandinavians, and one style of ornamentation in particular – the treasure necklace. Beads were so difficult to make that beaded ornamentation was highly valued and objects were passed from generation to generation.

Treasure or plunder Necklaces

There is a necklace that originated from a 9th century hoard from Hon in Norway, that has inspired bead makers from around the world. Most such hoards or caches were either deposited temporarily with the intention the owner retrieve them later, or deposited as a permanent abandonment as part of a ritual. Hoards are rarely dug up by archaeologists. Instead, most have been discovered by accident during road building, farming, or the turmoil of war.

The Hon cache contents were entirely gold, except for the necklace. The necklace has been dubbed the Hon Treasure necklace. It’s constructed of beads made of simple coloured glass, millefiori, flame-worked combed beads, foiled glass bead beads. It also had semi-precious stones with trailed decorations or pendants.

The Hon treasure necklace has circular pendants made of one or more white beads strung on circles of intricate wire, coloured glass, and a golden Arabic coin plus seven gold book mounts. Larger beads are used as “dividers”, with smaller beads strung between. One of the unique things about the style of treasure necklace is one must dismiss any modern concepts of form, colour and symmetry. The Vikings valued a mashup of colours and collected many types of beads and items converted to serve as pendants. The beads are matched in pairs and clusters of complimentary size, shape and colour instead of being strung symmetrically and an equal distance apart from the centre point of focus.

Archeologists have re-worked the necklace, rendering it historically accurate by attaching some gold filigree beads that had originally been left separate from the necklace.

Prehistoric Beads: Poverty Point

Last week I wrote about Palaeolithic beads, how they were made, and what they were used for. This week I am completing this topic with a look at the largest site for finding beads from this time period, which is Poverty Point in the lower Mississippi Valley.

Poverty Point is the largest and most complex Late Archaic site in North America. It was discovered in 1953 by an archaeologist who discovered the peculiar earthworks on aerial photographs taken by an Army mapmaker. This site is located in northeastern Louisiana in West Carroll County. It was in use for over one thousand years dating to between 3800 and 2500 years ago. These people produced the largest Archaic Period earthworks ever built in the United States. The house structures on this site were built on a series of six concentric semicircular embankments each measuring six feet high, 80 feet across and over 3600 feet long. A large bird effigy mound measuring 70 feet high and 640 feet across is also located on the Poverty Point site.

The Poverty Point culture was made up of several large and small settlement sites located in Louisiana and Mississippi. These people had a large network of trade relationships that brought in cherts from the north, steatite from the Appalachians and many other raw materials such as galena (lead), hematite, sandstone, jasper, slate, etc. The featured Poverty Point beads in this article were found near the Poverty Point site in Louisiana but also on sites in Alabama and one in Arkansas. Attesting to the far flung trade connections that must has been in existence at that time.

The Poverty Point culture developed a tradition of making high quality stylized carved and polished miniature stone beads. Other early cultures in the United States rarely used stone to make their beads opting for softer materials such as shell or bone. The fine cutting, engraving and polishing lapidary work these people did that resulted in such fine and unique art forms is quite remarkable. They were made in the image of many different animals that would have been common to their environment at that time. But they also made the more common tubular beads. The earliest recorded human figurines so far discovered in North America and made from fired clay were found on the Poverty Point site in Louisiana.

The people who were able to craft such creative artistry as exhibited in these wonderful sculptures must have lived during a time when their lives were more at ease, not under high stress as many other cultures before and after them. A situation that benefits us all to marvel at what they left behind.

See it all for yourself

One of the coolest things about all of the discoveries at Poverty Point, is that they have made an interactive online tool so that you can explore the site and get a behind the scenes peek at what they are finding. You can look up close at the artifacts they have found, and see the geography in detail. You can find it all right here.

Palaeolithic Bead Making

Glass beads, like the ones that I make at Dragonfly Organics, represent a relatively new process of bead making (especially when compared to ancient beads like the ones above). In their time they were considered attractive and precious objects, just like our contemporary jewelry, but they were made from softer materials like sea shell, egg shell, bone, ivory, teeth, claystone, shale, etc. Even pine nuts, fruit pits and seeds were used as beads. But some early cultures, also made them out of extremely hard materials like jade. These would be perforated through the middle and strung together for a variety of purposes.

Beads were used to express and elaborate personal identity for a large part of human history. Early dates for the use of beads range somewhere between 33,000 to 45,000 years ago from estimates of an early Later Stone Age stratum in Border Cave in South Africa. Even Neanderthals are known to have made and used beads.

Some of the earliest beads may have been worn to represent a social group rather than the individual. But whatever they were meant to convey in the beginning they certainly became an individual ornamentation as early as the Aurignacian period in Europe. What is most striking is the care they took to create an artistically unique item for adornment. Randy White of New York University has studied over 18,000 Aurignacian beads. These beads would date to somewhere between 32,000 and 28,000 years ago. By this time these people were choosing exotic materials away from their local territory to make their beads. If they lived in an area where ivory was available they used something from another area such as sea shells and someone in an area of sea shells might use ivory to make their beads. The idea was to make them as interesting and unique as possible.

In North America the earliest beads date to approximately 11,000 years ago within the Folsom culture. Beads were made throughout the archaeological record in this part of the world. In the southwestern U.S. the Desert people wore necklaces as their most popular pieces of jewelry, even before glass trade beads became widely available. In Mexico, bead making reached its highest skill level within some of the Late Stone Age cultures like the Aztec. They used many hard stones, the hardest of which was jade. These large organized societies were able to support craftsman who worked within specialized trades such as jewelry making.

Next week we will look at one of the biggest sites for Palaeolithic bead discovery, Poverty Point, in the lower Mississippi Valley. The finds are truly incredible!

 

35 Centuries of Glass Beads (Part 2)

Understanding of the process of glass bead making and bead working will give you insight and respect into the cultural influences and the global spread of bead production. Traditionally, the most common techniques in bead making are winding and drawing.

Winding

Twisting hot glass around a rod (called a mandrel) is the oldest and most common way to make a glass bead, dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. The first beads were made this way and several winding techniques are still in use today. Wound beads are produced by dipping a mandrel or rod of some material into hot glass and simply winding that around the rod. Furnace winding is when you dip an iron mandrel into glass then place it in a furnace. A peak is used to wind the glass around the mandrel after which the bead can be shaped or decorated. After its final heating, it can be knocked off the mandrel because iron cools faster than glass.

Lamp winding incorporates heat generated by a small lamp, which allows for more complex decoration.

Drawing

Drawn glass represents the inception of industrial mass-produced beads. They’re made from cutting a tube of glass that’s been drawn or pulled. Drawn beads include the glass seed beads, which are small beads meant to be sewn on or woven into patterns.

Nowadays, technology enables beads to be manufactured efficiently and with more consistency. Mold-pressing is common and expands the style and shapes of beads available, molds can be almost anything, and DIY bead-makers are discovering unique ways of creating beads using molds.

Bead working started as a localized ancient art form and has spread throughout many regions. It continues to fulfill the roles of ornamenting clothing, representing aspects of spiritual ceremonies as well as continue to inspire completely new craft forms. An understanding of the formation of these distinctive objects shows both the similarities and differences in the production and use of beadwork around the world.

35 Centuries of Glass Beads (Part 1)

Glass beads tell a story relating to diverse cultures and societies. More than the expression of a desire for ornamentation, beads have historically served a functional purpose as well.

Beads played an important role in burial ceremonies.

Bodies in Egyptian burial chambers were discovered adorned with nets of stone and faience beads. Beads were regarded as ritualized objects, the colours, patterns, the way they are worn as well as the placement in the burial site, have meaning. The eye bead, used to repel the “evil eye”, is a common one throughout history. The Egyptian stratified bead, where layers of glass form the image of an eye; Roman face beads and the Islamic eye motifs, are all intended to safeguard the wearer during the transition from life into the afterlife.

Beads are a visual representation of wealth, status and power.

In ancient societies, glass beads signify wealth and power. An African chief may display a rare, imported Venetian chevron bead to signify his status and value in his culture. The volume of beads worn and how rare a bead is tells us a story about that individuals wealth. The Nigerian Yoruba kings wear head to toe elaborate beadwork garments and accessories, claiming their status and position.

Life cycles and transitions are often marked with beads

In many cultures, articles of clothing will be adorned with beads that signify a change or transition in that persons’ life. In American Indian and Indonesian cultures, baby carriers have beautiful bead motifs specific to aid, protect and comfort the child.
Beaded elephant masks found in Cameroon are worn to inspire wonder during celebrations and ritualistic events.

Glass beads used as currency or trade

Beads have been critical to the expansion of global exploration and exchange, and have inspired a wave of popular imitation beads. Indo-Pacific glass beads, first produced in India as early as 200 BC, are some of the most traded beads throughout history, being actively traded for over 1000 years are travelling as far as China and West Africa.

Glass European trade beads have inspired imitation beads to be sold for profit, which is interesting when you consider a part of the original purpose of producing glass beads was to imitate precious stones, gems, and other natural materials.

Glass beads may have their origins in history, but they continue to evolve and take on new meanings as they find a home in different cultures across the globe.

Beads in Africa 3: More Uses

Waist beads have a long history in Africa and are worn for various reasons and purposes. Typically worn under the clothes as a private adornment, they can represent womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality and more.

The meaning of the colours vary with each community, and speak their own language. The style and shape of each bead, it’s colour, and the composition of the beads together have meaning, they are somewhat open to interpretation. However, certain qualities are traditionally assigned to various hues:

  • Blue: faith and devotion, insight, knowledge, healing, peace, truth, harmony.
  • Green: supporting the wearer to love nature, align with prosperity, hope, harmony, healing and humble.
  • Red: courageous spirit, self-confidence, vitality, energy and passion.
  • Yellow: calming, soft wisdom, knowledge and clarity.

In ancient Africa, mothers adorned their daughters with waist beads to acknowledge their transition into womanhood and developing body and fertility. These waist beads used the addition of tiny bells to court suiters. In some cultures the waist beads were worn up until the wedding night, when they were removed by her husband.

You’ve probably seen waist beads worn by belly dancers to assist with the art of seduction. In the Middle Eastern cultures, the beads are said to be intimate and provoke desire like lingerie, maybe because women are said to infuse their beads with charms and fragrances supposedly irresistible to the opposite sex.

Waist beads can be made of stones, and some semi precious stones are reputed to have healing and influencing qualities. Worn to rebalance ones love life, or to remedy a specific ailment semi-precious stones are popular additions in the design of waist beads.

It’s not true that to wear waist beads you should be size zero. Waist beads can be worn under or over the clothes in a celebration of the feminine form. In a culture without scales, waist beads can assist in monitoring fluctuations in weight, because the strung beads alert women if she gains weight due to a health condition or becomes pregnant. Waist beads don’t stretch like yoga pants.

Waist beads serve a decorative, spiritual, and functional purpose and are spreading in popularity around the world. The appeal of beads and beadwork will continue to grow and exist as an expression of beauty and femininity.

Dragonfly Organics In-Depth Video

I would like to introduce you to my process, while you watch this video of me working the summer market at Bastion Square, in Victoria BC! Special thanks to Wladyslaw Labuda and Art Market Art & Craft Sale for their fantastic work.

Beads in Africa 2: Their Uses

In African culture, beads are for more than just decorative. They are rich with symbolism and have a wide variety of uses across the continent.

Stress Relief

Long before the “fidget spinner” was created as a way to alleviate anxiety, the Greeks used worry beads for relaxation, as an amulet and by those trying to break an addiction. The quality of beads used represents the social status of the wearer, especially is the worry beads are made of silver or amber. Beads are also embedded as rollers in wooded hand-held massage therapy devices.

Currency

Aggri (or Aggrey) beads are a traditional form of currency, exchange and method of payment in Africa. Europeans first collected aggri beads from the West Coast of Africa in the 15th Century and featured heavily in the transactions of slave trade.

Medicinal purposes

Traditional medicine dictates that some beads are made to be worn as adornment then consumed, such as the case of an edible amulet. To this day, many African newborns wear a beaded bracelet for spiritual and physical protection and a bracelet often follows the dead to their graves. There is also a practice of adorning animals for rituals to appease spirits or bring good luck and health.

Gaming

Similar to modern day casino games that use markers and dice, many traditional African games involve beads, and are still popular to this day. Some examples are owari beads for mancala, the Bead Trade Game, Hama beads and the Bead Maze Roller Coaster among numerous others.

Adornment

Wearing or adorning oneself with intricate beadwork was traditionally reserved for members of high status or royalty. In more recent years, beads of all kinds have found their way into modern textiles, design and couture, and is more about individual expression than a designation of status.

Used for souvenirs and to raise awareness

Fundraising with bracelets, bangles and beaded keychains are a few of the hugely popular ways to raise awareness. Millions of “Romy” the rhino beaded bracelets have been sold as souvenirs, and bead makers capitalize on the “must have” trend to spread their message. Romy and other creations are examples of merging traditional African bead making practices with philanthropy. The rhino bracelet draws attention to an ongoing crucial conservation issue.

As you can see, beads in Africa are steeped in tradition but with the merging of contemporary applications have withstood the test of time.

Beads in Africa 1: Materials and Origin

In African culture, beads are revered as highly symbolic, and the materials used to make beads have varied from natural materials such as eggshell, clay, twigs, stones, ivory and bone to glass beads that were introduced later by traders from Europe, India and the Middle East. The origin of beads and beadwork in Africa can be traced back at least 12,000 years, and continue to play an integral role in everyday life.

The oldest known beads have been found in the Kalahari desert, Sudan and Libya. The discovery of beads has led to the identification of historical sites in Mapungubwe and Zimbabwe.

Beads were used in various parts of Africa as adornment or works of art. The types and styles of beads as well as how they were worn or displayed, denoted a persons’ wealth and status, and also pointed to what tribe they belonged to. In some African economies beads were a stable form of currency.

In Africa today, beadwork still consists of natural material such as bone, coral, horn, ivory, seeds, shells, stones and pearls as well as glass, plastic and alloy metals. Sources for synthetic beads include China, Hungary, India and Poland. The uses of beads and beadwork differ widely across the continent, and beads continue to serve as a focal point for prayer.

Sangomas/n’angas or traditional healers wear distinctive amulets and beadwork that identify their role and aid directly in their healing work. They believe certain colours of beads hold special properties to heal spiritual issues or areas of illness in their life. Bead colours are “prescribed” according to the individual’s symptoms, complaints and characteristics. It’s common practice for novice sangomas to wear single strings of white beads around their heads, wrists, elbow and ankles, while experienced older healers have graduated to be able to wear more opulent and elaborate bead work with variant colours, embellishments and integrated materials including feathers.

Beads also serve a specialised purpose in fortune-telling or future seeing rituals, when thrown or rolled on a mat combined with bones, dice, stones and pieces of wood. Beads and seeds can also be contained in gourds which are shaken and rattled to ward off evil spirits or to play ritual/festive music (leg rattles, hosho for the mbira, or in church choirs).

Beads are more than a symbol of beauty. They have may roles in traditional African culture and religious rituals, which increase their value and our respect for them.

The History of Beadmaking

Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series on the history of bead making and the significance of beads in a variety of cultures from all over the world. This week we explore the long history of bead making. Where it came from, and how much it has (and hasn’t) changed in the last 500 years.

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Beads have been made of glass for over 5,000 years. The discovery of fire was the essential step in glass bead making. There is evidence as early as 2340-2180 BC in Mesopotamia of a method known as “core-forming” where they used a metal mandrel with pieces of glass held over a flame. Gradually as the glass softens, they would wrap it around the mandrel forming intricate ornaments.

These early beads, or vessels were considered valuable and were preserved as they were placed in burial tombs. In Nuzi (130 miles north of Baghdad) beads were discovered that date to around 1400 BC. Even today, we make beads by holding glass rods over a flame then gently winding the molten glass over the mandrels. The invention of the blow pipe in gave way to the creation of the Rosetta bead and the seed beads which sustained the bead making industry in Venice for centuries. Beadmaking is truly an ancient artform.

Beadmaking in Venice

The history of beadmaking in Venice goes back to the days of Marco Polo when he returned from his travels with the beads of Asia. Local artisians took to their glass making skills to reproduce in glass the precious stones of Marco Polo.

In Venice and Murano, the beading industry has historically been a woman’s work. In the picture above you see the women working while caring for their children. During the 1920s – 1930s, the conterie (seed bead) industry sustained Venice’s glass industry. The wars took the men from the furnaces and between World War I and World War II there was little time to build up the industry. During the 1930s there were as many as 30 companies making the tiny beads, employing hundreds of women.

Types of Beads Produced in Venice
Seedbead – Conterie

Hollow tubes produced then chopped and refired for smoothness and color. Sold in shanks prestrung or by the kilo. Used in decorative jewelry and clothing. The peak of this production was in the early 1900s and today the industry is virtually non-existent in Murano.

Rosetta or Chevron

Produced from the canes known as Rosetta which had a center hole. First produced in Murano at the end of the 14th Century. It was made of a hollow cane and six layers of glass (white, blue, white, brick red, white then finally blue). It was ground to produce patterns of 5 concentric stars with twelve points. The canes were chopped and this production method increased greatly the quantities of beads which could be sold.

Later as this cane was produced without the hole and the Millefiori canes were born which today create the famous Murano Millefiori beads or sometimes known as lace beads.

Blown Beads (Venetian Blown)

With the introduction of the lampwork flame, beadmakers discovered they could melt the canes and then blow the glass. Today our spiral blown beads and beads with stripes of color are produced using the Filigrana Method where canes of glass are laid down and picked up with a blow pipe.

Lampwork or Wound Beads or Perle a Lume Venetian Beads

Often called wound beads because the melting glass is wound over a mandrel. Originally the Venetian beads were wound over a ferrous mandrel which had been covered with a mixture of silica and clay which gave the bead some room for contraction when it cooled and helped remove the bead from the mandrel. This material was originally known as “fango” meaning mud and legend is that it was, indeed, the mud from the lagoon.

In the 1920s copper mandrels were introduced into Murano by the Moretti firm and soon became the standard for making beads. It was considered an economical as the mandrels did not need to be coated and minimized breakage in removing from the mandrel because mandrel was cut off just below the bead and the entire bead was placed in Nitric Acid which etched the copper from inside the bead. However, environmental standards are adding to the cost of this process and many small beadmakers do not have the equipment, rather they take bags of beads to one or two shops who specialize in this etching process. Today’s beadmakers in Venice and Murano use both methods, using stainless steel with a bead release material for more delicate beads or beads with silver which tends to burn (turn dark) if it touches the acid. Murano beads are made much in the same was as thousands of years ago.