Thursday, 27 December 2012

Beads Antiquity

Western Asian Stone Beads
In western Asia between 8000 and 6500 B.C., the foundations were laid for what is known as the Neolithic Revolution. It was during this period that people first made the transition from nomadic food-gatherers to settled food-producers—an extremely important advance that led to the establishment of permanent settlements. Village life, in turn, encouraged the accumulation of material possessions and stimulated trade. Moreover, the ability to store surplus food allowed time for craft specialization.

A group of early western Asian stone beads made of hard stones (predominantly quartz minerals), including agate, rock crystal, sard, carnelian, and jasper; c. 4000-2000 B.0 Also shown are beads of lapis lazuli, breccia, steatite, fossilized shell (top left), and fossilized coral (middle left). During this period, beads were often made with the same techniques employed to create stone weapons and tools—flaking or rough grinding on abrasive blocks. Firm! shaping and polishing was done with abrasives made of /lint chips, sand, or clay slurry. The similarity of shapes between all early beads in the region probably reflects the use of similar technologies. Fossilized shell: length, 4.9 cm. 
Collection Derek Content 

Bead clock of Queen Pu-abi, from the royal Sumerian graves at Ur, 2500 B.c. Length of longest strand, 36.2 cm. University of Pennsylvania, PhiladelphiaMade of scarce, durable, and easily recognizable raw materials to which commercial value could be easily assigned, and produced in small, standardized, and readily portable sizes, beads became a major commodity for traders. The demand for exotic and rare materials to be used for adornment helped to establish trade networks in western Asia and the Mediterranean at a very early date. By 6500 B.C., there were strong and far-reaching inter-changes, encompassing numerous partners and thousands of miles.

Detail of the bead clock of Queen Pu-abi, showing carnelian, lapis lazuli, agate, silver and gold loop-in-loop chain beadsVillages sprang up where people were harvesting plants and raising animals. Realizing the limited agricultural potential of growing crops in the rocky hills, people gradually introduced domesticated plants into the lower floodplains, where the soil was rich but the rainfall scanty. It was with the invention of irrigation systems that river valley societies in Mesopotamia (present-day northern Syria and Iraq), India, and Egypt evolved into sophisticated, complex city-states. Jewelry was an important art form within these cultures.

Settled village life was one of the predominant characteristics of Neolithic society. Stone and mud-brick dwellings were built, providing the first permanent forms of architecture. An unprecedented level of craftsmanship also flourished: the first examples of weaving and pottery and a proliferation of bead forms are associated with Neolithic times. Of great significance for the study of beads was the expansion of long-distance trade between the rapidly evolving, agriculturally intensive civilizations of the Mediterranean and the mountain cultures of western Asia. The uneven distribution of the regions' resources created networks of commercial relations that united these societies and encouraged the exchange of cultural artifacts.

Amuletic beads of carnelian, feldspar amethyst, faience, jasper and ivory from Egypt, during the First Intermediate period (2181-2130 B.c). Amulets were very important throughout Egyptian history. The common word for amulet in the dynastic periods was mkt, or "protector," and udjat, "the thing which keeps safe "and "the strengthener" Each shape was believed to help the wearer in specific circumstances encountered in life and the afterlife. Amulets were widely used in personal jewelry from the Fifth to the Twelfth Dynasty (2494-1786 B.c.).

Some amulets represent particular gods and were believed to impart the special qualities associated with those gods. The frog goddess, Heqet, for example, was considered the patroness of birth; the udjat, also known as the Eye of Horus, had strong amuletic powers, while the djed pillar stood for endurance. Amulets in the forms of human anatomical parts were thought to protect those body parts in the living. Furthermore, some beads were made of materials considered especially protective; in particular; garnet, carnelian, and crystal. Longest amulet: length, 3 cm. British Museum, London 

An example of New Kingdom bead production. Effigy lotus seed-pods in carnelian, gold, lapis lazuli, and feldspar; with tiny carnelian and gold spacer beads. Typical carnelian lotus pod: length, 1.5 cm. British Museum, LondonSophisticated systems of commerce evolved by the fourth millennium B.C. in which beads and bead materials often played an important role. Beads of lapis lazuli, a beautiful blue stone with numerous amuletic properties attributed to it, were a great favorite of the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia during the third millennium B.C. Lapis was mined in the ancient Afghan region of Badakhshan, fifteen hundred miles away.

Collar of faience beads depicting corn-flowers, dates, lotus seed-pods, and petals in a pattern derived from garlands of real flowers. Faience bead collars were frequently supplied as favors to guests at banquets. This necklace typifies the technical brilliance of the faience and glass jewelry of the Amarna period (1379-1362 B.C.). It has been suggested that the uniquely gay and joyful quality of Amarna period art and jewelry reflects the sudden appearance of outside influences—possibly attributable to Minoan artists who may have fled to Egypt after the fall of Crete. Excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamen at Thebes.  Diameter, 31 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York . Rogers FundThe early Greeks of Mycenae, who established trading contacts with the Bronze Age cultures in the Baltic, exchanged copper and bronze implements for rare amber, with which they made beads. In effect, they extended their technical expertise to the less developed European regions while absorbing new materials and forms of adornment. Eventually, large quantities of glass beads would be carried thousands of miles by the ancient Phoenician and Roman seafaring civilizations.

Throughout antiquity, raw materials were traded more often than finished beads. A system developed of rural areas in Europe and western Asia supplying luxury materials to the urban centers, where craftsmen congregated under the aegis of wealthy patrons. Using the most advanced technology, they created beads in the latest styles. A corollary to this pattern is that finished beads were usually traded by more technically advanced cultures to less advanced ones. Beads demonstrating intricate craftsmanship were particularly prized. 

Beads from the Royal Tombs at Ur

A collection of New Kingdom sand-core glass beads from the Amarna period. For right eye bead: diameter 1.5 cm. Collection Henry Anavian, New YorkA royal graveyard—the tomb of Queen Pu-abi, in particular—in the Sumerian city of Ur contained some of the most remarkable beads in the ancient world. In the graves, several of which were mass burials that included one noble person and a retinue of attendants, all the women and many of the men were interred with beads. Numerous skeletons were found with the beads still in their original arraignments.

The (Ur cemetery contained graves spanning five hundred years (2600-2100 B.C) and three periods: Early Dynastic III, Akkadian, and Post-Akkadian, each of id its own distinctive group of beads. Queen Pu-abi's beads date from the Early Dynastic 111 period (2500 B. c), when ur was the most powerful city-state The beads are of five materials: carnelian, lapis lazuli, agate, gold, and sliver. The sophisticated goldsmithing techniques of the Ur beads and the mastery of polishing and precision-cutting of stones show how quickly technology craftsmanship and artisny accelerated in the hands of full-time artisans.

Lunar pectoral with necklace of carnelian, lapis lazuli, feldspar; and gold beads and a lotus blossom counterpoise. This is a striking example of the three basic components in Egyptian jewelry —pectoral, beaded neck-lace, and counterpoise—unified into a single design. Even the beaded tassels hanging from the counterpoise acted as amulets, protecting the wearer from behind. This piece was worn by King Tutankhamen and buried in his tomb at Thebes, c. 1352 B. c Pectoral; width, /1.8 cm. Cairo Museum All materials used in these beads were imported, testifying to the power of the rulers to protect trade routes and establish foreign alliances. The largest beads using the finest colored stories were recovered consistently from royal graves, another expression of the supreme power of royalty.


Agate, jasper; and carnelian beads purported to have been excavated near the Amu Darya River; the legendary "Oxus of empires," in northeastern Afghanistan. All the beads of this group, particularly the rhomboidal or lenticular agates, are of the finest quality. These beads have almost exact counterparts among artifacts discovered in the royal tombs at Ur (2600-2100 13. C.).

Rhomboidal beads date to 7000 B. C at Catal Hilyiik, Anatolia. Agates of this fine quality how-ever; are documented at only a few archaeological sites: Ur (Mesopotamia), Tape Hisser (Iran), and Mundigak (Afghanistan). Their distribution may be related to the far-reaching third-millennium trade in lapis lazuli or to trade in etched beads between Mesopotamia and the IndusValley.8 Inside neck-lace, center bead: length, 3.5 cm. Private collections

Agate, jasper, and carnelian beads
Between 4000 and 3000 B.C., three of the earliest centers of civilization based on intensive agriculture developed in the river valleys of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. These were hierarchical societies with an upper level of merchant, priestly, military, and royal classes in whose collective hands wealth was concentrated. One way in which social differences were reflected was the display of adornment, including beads. Indeed, for the first time, the role of beads as status symbols equaled or surpassed their ritual or magical functions. The dual function of beads as amulets and status symbols is a prevailing theme of their history throughout most of western Asia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean in ancient times.

Mesopotamian and Egyptian priests and kings employed full-time jewelers, and through their patronage bead making technology developed rapidly. The degree of prestige attached to a necklace depended not only on its craftsmanship, but on the use of rare and precious materials. To obtain not only the basic necessities of life, but these scarce minerals, metals, and marine products as well, trade routes spanning great distances developed into an important part of these civilizations' commercial activities.

A collection of lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, agate, and gold beads recovered in the 1980s from archaeological sites in northern Afghanistan are believed to date between 2200 and 1600 B.C. These beads resemble in quality form and materials’ those of the same period nom Mesopotamia. Their minute scale—as many as forty to an inch have been recorded—is associated with wealth, since it was necessary to waste considerable raw material in their fabrication. Gold fly: length, 1.5 cm. Private collection Egypt had within its boundaries most of the natural resources used in bead making; Mesopotamia, however, had none of the appropriate materials. Gold probably came to the 'Tigris and Euphrates valleys from the mountains of Anatolia or Iran, carnelian and agate from India and Afghanistan, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Lapis, the one stone important to Egyptian jewelry not found inside its borders, reached the Nile Delta via Mesopotamia.

By 2500 B.C., beads produced for Sumerian royalty in the city-state of Ur in southern Mesopotamia were of superb craftsmanship, employing sophisticated goldsmithing techniques for granulation and filigree. Fluted melon beads were crafted in gold and lapis lazuli. The products of Sumerian jewelers spread into the less-developed cultures of western Asia and into Anatolia, the probable source of the jewelers' gold. Sumerian jewelry techniques also traveled to southern Greece arid Crete, where gold beads in related styles appear at slightly later dates.

The importance of Sumerian and Mesopotamian jewelry and bead making and its direct or indirect influence on the adornment of subsequent cultures in western Asia and the Mediterranean cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, most techniques practiced by jewelers today were known to the ancient Sumerian goldsmiths. With the dissolution of the Sumerian Empire about 1600 B.C., the techniques developed by Sumerian smiths were passed on to Babylonian craftsmen in northern Mesopotamia.

The Phoenicians created distinctive three-dimensional glass head and pendant beads, many of which were manufactured in Carthage. Head beads were popular trade items as early as 700 B.C. and were widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean area. They may have been viewed as a more developed form of the eye bead, with greater protective powers derived from rendering the whole head rather than just the eye. The beads were made by a winding or core-formed technique. When the bead was completed, the core was removed with a pointed tool. This ram's head is dated 30010 200 B.C. Length, 5.15 cm. Images on this page: Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.
Glass and glass beads also appear to have a western Asian and possibly Sumerian origin. The earliest examples are from Mesopotamia, dating to the Akkad dynasty (2340-2180 B.c.), and from the Caucasus region in present-day Russia.


Virtually everyone in ancient Egypt, from predynastic to Ptolemaic times (c. 3100-30 B.c.), wore beads. The Egyptian word sha means "luck" and sha-sha means "bead", suggesting that beads were thought to have amuletic or protective properties. This may explain the Egyptian custom of using beads to cover almost every article of clothing and every part of the body The Egyptians also believed that to insure comfort in the afterlife, the dead must be surrounded with the paraphernalia of daily life. Quantities of beads were buried with their owner, the choice of the materials depending on the family's wealth. Occasionally, delicately beaded funeral pieces were also included.

Pendant bead, 450-300 B.C. Length, 5.7 cm Granulated gold beads born Iran, c. 1000 B.C. Although these beads in fact precede the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 B.C.), the period of major Greek-Persian contact, they show the superb quality of ancient Iranian gold work, which later had an impact on Hellenistic jewelry.

The fine granulation techniques illustrated here reveal influences from neighboring Assyrian, Babylonian, or Elamite goldsmiths. It is also possible that knowledge of granulation was derived from Egypt via Hurrian or Phoenician workshops on the Syrian coasts. Upper right bead: diameter, 1.3 cm. Collection Hetzry Anavian, New York 

Head bead, 400-200 B.C. Length, 3.4 cm
As in Mesopotamia, beads were worn by both men and women in Egypt and were depicted on statues of the gods. Although numerous stones were available to the Egyptians, certain metals and stones were favored, especially gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. A stone's color almost certainly had particular talismanic value to the Egyptian lapidary and his clients, and therefore determined its popularity.

The greatest numbers of Egyptian beads were made of faience, an inexpensive type of ceramic with a quartz sand body and colored glaze, generally considered to be the forerunner of true glass. Possibly invented in either Mesopotamia or Egypt by 4000 B.C., faience was the first mass-produced synthetic material to simulate precious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli. The development of faience and eventually glass satisfied the desire of the general populace to wear beads that emulated the precious stones of the wealthy.

Although glass beads are known by the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties (c. 2181-2160 B.C.), they were first manufactured for a large commercial market beginning in Egypt about 1400 B.C. The New Kingdom, especially the later phases of the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1350 B.C.), is generally considered to be the world's first great glass-making epoch. The earliest glass, an exotic material, was made for use by the pharaohs and their courts, although it eventually became available to wealthier commoners.

A decline in glassmaking skills occurred in Egypt after the Nineteenth Dynasty ended (c. 1200 B.c.), and glass’s virtually disappeared after the fall of the New Kingdom (1085 B.C.). It was revived in Ptolemaic times, during the fourth century B.C., when Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, a cosmopolitan center with international trading links. Glass reputedly produced in Alexandria through the early Roman period included some of the most beautiful and complex beads ever made.


A necklace of Etruscan gold and Phoenician glass beads. These well-made granulated and filigree gold beads represent the pinnacle of technical excellence for ancient goldsmiths. This necklace was probably created in the early sixth century when the Phoenicians and Etruscans were political allies, living and trading in relative harmony Pendant: length, 3.1 cm. British Museum, London Ancient Afghanistan was a major supplier of both raw materials and beautifully made stone beads, a fact as much related to the mineral wealth of its mountains as to its geographic location. Surrounded by Iran, India, China, and Russia, trade routes between these countries.

Passed through Afghanistan, making it an important transmitter of materials and culture and a strategic intermediary between East and West.9 Historically underrated as a source of bead craftsmanship, Afghanistan was considerably more than a source of raw materials. Many beads excavated there and attributed to the third and second millenniums B.C. have exact counterparts among the artifacts recovered from the royal tombs of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Because these beads are found in such quantity in Afghanistan, it is reason-able to assume they were manufactured locally.

The great bead making era in Afghanistan ended about 1600 B.C., a date synchronous with the decline of the Babylonian Empire. As trade to the south dwindled both the incentives and the economic structures supporting bead making seem to have disappeared.


By 1200 B.C., the Phoenicians (who were centered in present-day Lebanon) had become the leading navigators and traders of their time. From a small group of city-states (Sidon, Tyre, Beirut, and Byblos) located along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians sailed great distances , possibly even reaching the southern tip of Africa. Despite their daring explorations, however, Phoenician trade routes essentially duplicated those of the earlier Minoans and Mycenaean’s. Phoenician commerce was based on timber—the famed cedars of Lebanon—which was exchanged for Cypriot copper and African gold, precious stones, ivory and spices. Cloth of Tyrian purple (a dye made from murex shells) and glass beads were also staple exports.

A Hellenistic Greek necklace, c. 300-200 B.C., in the polychrome style. The combination of gold, enameling, and colored glass beads shows the influence of the East—particularly Persia and Phoenicia. Length, 39 cm. Castellanies Collection, British Museum, London
The Phoenicians were highly skilled glass bead makers, borrowing many stylistic concepts from those with whom they traded, while developing their own technologies. Like the Babylonians (who succeeded the Sumerians as the dominant force in western Asia from 1760 to 1600 13.C.), Egyptians, and Greeks, the Phoenicians buried their dead with great care, inter-ring unique core-formed glass pendants and beads with the deceased. By 800 B.C., Carthage, originally a colonial Phoenician outpost on the North African coast, became a great international seaport famed for its glass beads and pendants. They were distributed by Phoenician traders throughout the Mediterranean until the second century B.C.

The Roman Empire

Banded agates were imitated so perfectly by ancient glassmakers that it is often difficult to determine if a bead is stone or glass. The beads in the left column of this plate are stone, while those on the right are glass. Most of the stone beads date to the Persian, Parthian, and Roman periods (249 B.C-A.D. 300), although some rows (third from the top down, for example) date to the early first millennium B.C. The glass beads are from the Roman Period (except for the third row, which may date to 800 B.C.). All beads shown were found in Iran. Bottom left bead: length, 4.5 cm. Collection Henry Anavian Rome's artistic heritage, including jewelry and beads, was largely derived from the preceding Greek Hellenistic period. In turn, Hellenistic craftsmen had themselves been influenced by exposure to Persian, Phoenician, Egyptian, and northern Indian traditions. It is therefore not surprising that Roman beads are a cross-cultural mixture of materials, stylistic concepts, and technical knowledge.

The Romans emerged from a small second-millennium B.C. enclave near Rome to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean and Europe until their empire's collapse in A.D. 476. By A.D.100, Rome's territories extended from Armenia and Assyria in the east to Germany and Britain in the north and Mauritania and Egypt in the south.

The Roman period, New Kingdom Egypt, and the era of Islamic dominance in the Mediterranean (C. A.D. 600-1400) are generally considered the three great periods of ancient glassmaking. The terms "Roman" and "Roman-period" glass are used to describe glass production from 100 B.C. to AD. 400 within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, including work-shops in Syria, Egypt, Italy, Switzerland, the Rhineland , France, and England. Everywhere the Romans went they brought glass beads to trade. Produced in a large range of colors, patterns, and frequently complex techniques, Roman-made glass beads were widely coveted. 

Necklace: A wide variety of mosaic and other patterned glass beads interspersed with small carnelians and blue glass corner less cubes. Beads shown date from the Phoenician through early Islamic periods (c. 400 B.C.-A.D. 900). Center bead: diameter 1.9 cm. Private collection
Exchanged as far north as Scandinavia, and as far east and south as China, Korea, Iran, Syria, Mali, and Ethiopia, quantities of Roman-period glass beads have been found in each of these countries, frequently raising the question of where they were originally manufactured because of their similar patterns and manufacturing techniques.

After Alexander's conquests, the practice of glassmaking appears to have moved from the interior of Egypt to Hellenistic Alexandria, where exquisite mosaic glass was manufactured from 300 B.C. to A.D. 100. (Yet, despite the city's reputation as the ancient center of the luxury glass industry, no glassmaking factory has ever been found in Alexandria.) About 100 B.C., glassmakers in Sidon and Tyre on the Lebanese coast competed with the Alexandrians in producing beautiful glass beads. Eventually, craftsmen from both centers migrated to new locations within the Roman provinces, setting up factories and disseminating techniques and forms.

Necklace: A wide variety of mosaic and other patterned glass beads interspersed with small carnelians and blue glass corner less cubes. Beads shown date from the Phoenician through early Islamic periods (c. 400 B.C.-A.D. 900). Center bead: diameter 1.9 cm. Private collection During the first century B.C., core forming, a glass manufacturing technique long in use, went out of style. Newly invented larger furnaces with hotter fires were capable of creating a more fluid glass, affecting bead shapes and their patterns. Furthermore, glass's constituents (sand, alkali, and coloring agents) were refined, subsequently producing purer glass. The invention of the blowpipe, reputedly in Sidon, completely modernized the glass industry by increasing the level of production and opening the way for still further new techniques, forms, and decorative styles. 

Although the blowpipe was not directly relevant to glass bead making, since few beads were blown (the great majority were still produced by winding and the newly introduced drawn techniques), the combined result of all these innovations under Roman guidance was the growth of glassmaking into a large-scale industry More glass was made in the first century A.D. than in the previous fifteen hundred years. Because the material was widely obtainable, relatively inexpensive, and no longer reserved for the elite, everyone could now afford to wear beads.

Mosaic face beads-miniature masterpieces of ancient glassmaking. The fine detail achieved on beads typically less than one-half inch in diameter was astonishing. Note the eyes with pupils, the skin tones, and women wearing tiny bead necklaces. Top left bead: diameter 1.2 cm. Private collection
While beads manufactured in the European provinces during the late Roman period were generally of poorer quality than those of earlier times, glassworks along the east coast of the Mediterranean and within the Byzantine and Sassanian empires continued to produce finely crafted and styled beads, providing a link between Rome and the Islamic era, the last great period of ancient glass bead making. 

Mosaic glass beads

Mosaic glass beads of the Hellenistic and Roman periods (300 B.C.-A.D.400) were made with techniques initially used in the earliest days of glassmaking. Archaeological evidence points to the invention of mosaic glass in western Asia. Mosaic glass reappeared in Egypt (Alexandria) and Syria only after the fourth century B.c and declined after the first century A.D. It had a final renaissance in Venice about 1500.

Mosaic glass bars from which beads could be manufactured easily were an important trade commodity in the Roman world. Thin slices of a bar; as shown here, were cut with a metal blade and abrasive sand. These slices were then pierced for beads. By distributing the bars, complex mosaic glass was made available to less sophisticated glass industries. It was not unusual for merchants separated by thousands of miles to order glass ingots from a common supplier. As a result, mosaic glass beads of similar patterns were found throughout the empire. 100 B.C.-A.D. 100. Length, 3.7 cm. Corning Museum of Glass, Corning. New YorkArtistically crafted mosaic glass beads, also called millefiore ("thousand flowers"), are the product of great' technical expertise. The fine detail of the beads was achieved by laying a bundle of preformed colored glass rods in parallel rows so that the cross-section of the bundle had a pattern. The glass was then heat-softened and stretched, fusing the canes together. This miniaturized the design, but the Goss-sectional pattern remained unchanged.  

Writer - Lois Sherr Dubin
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