Friday, 25 January 2013

Middle And South American Art Beads

 Beads made of hollow gold balls by Chimu craftsmen. Two identical hemispheres were created by tapping a gold sheet into a deep die or by shaping the beads over a domed wooden form. The two halves were then affixed with organic glue; there is no evidence of soldering.
Ever since their Asiatic ancestors crossed the Bering Strait into what is today Alaska, at least fifteen thousand and perhaps as many as thirty-five thousand years ago, American Indians have been developing and adapting their cultures to the myriad environments of North, Middle, and South America. By the time the Spanish arrived almost five hundred years ago, a wide range of Indian cultures of varying complexity existed between the Arctic Sea and the Strait of Magellan. Most of the Americas were occupied by various forms of village-farming societies, but there were also simple hunting-and-gathering societies, which stood in stark contrast to the great civilizations of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. 

Despite the cultural sophistication of the notable Middle and South American civilizations, they lacked important technological assets, including gunpowder, and they were highly vulnerable to European diseases, which prevented them from warding off the Spanish conquest of the New World. From 1519 to 1533, the conquistadors defeated both the Aztec and Inca empires and profoundly changed the customs of their people. Prehistoric Middle and South American peoples had produced a variety of beautiful beads, but the most valued were those of jade and gold. Important symbolic reinforcements of the status structure, beads were significant features of Indian societies, and their manufacture and distribution were carefully controlled. With the breakdown of Indian civilizations and the elimination of the elite, jade and gold beads disappeared.

 A Mayan jade bead, A. D. 200-500, carved from a water-worn pebble that has been slightly modified, perforated, and polish-ed.
Beads appear early in the history of Middle and South American cultures. Snail shell beads from southern Mexico date to 7500 B.C. , and a stone discoidal bead from the Mexican Valley of Tehuacan dates to about 3000 B.c. Beadmaking in Middle America developed as farming societies were established and ceremonialism and increasingly complex social and political relationships evolved as part of village life. Much of the evidence for the Middle American beadmaking tradition is found in archaeological sites. 

Beads appear in substantial numbers beginning with the Pre-Classic period (1500 B.C.) and continuing through the late Post-Classic civilizations of the Mixtec and Toltec up to A.D. 1500. These beads (and their counterparts in South America) are well preserved, for they were buried prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Bead evidence after 1519 is scanty because the products of major jewelry-making cultures like the Aztec and Inca were largely destroyed by the Spanish during or soon after the conquest.

The beads and amulets in this Tairona necklace from northern Colombia (A.D. 800-1500) represent birds, spread-winged bats, frogs, grub (guzano, a rich food source), and quadripeds, inhabitants of the local Tairona environment. The stylized image of a chief appears on the lower left of the necklace in jasper; four Y-shaped frog beads, two each of carnelian and rock crystal, are in the center Occupying the Caribbean coastal plain and foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Tairona produced finely made gold, shell, and stone beads.  The stones used in these beads came from the streams, and valleys of the Sierra Nevada range. They include rock crystal, agate, chalcedony, carnelian, and jasper The red shell disks are from the Spondylus ("thorny oyster"). A bean color and depth of polish was important. Polished beads were called "live beads"; those with duller surfaces and softer colors were considered "dead beads. Until the Spanish arrived, beadmaking was a flourishing industry, particularly among the more complex Middle and South American societies. From the emergence of the Olmec civilization in the thirteenth century B.C. to the collapse of the Aztec and Inca empires twenty-seven centuries later, native craftsmen wrought exquisite gold and jade bead necklaces throughout Middle and South America. Located on the Gulf Coast (present-day Veracruz and Tabasco), the Olmecs (1250 to 400 B.c.) created the first great civilization in Middle America. They produced beautiful beads, particularly of jade, that used motifs similar to the articulation of their stone sculpture. Mayan (A.D. 1-900) craftsmen of southern Mexico and Guatemala also made elaborate beads. Ceramic figurines, painted scenes on pottery, and limestone carvings show Mayan gods and rulers wearing large beads (the tatters' crown jewels). Carved Mayan beads often incorporated motifs identical to those seen on buildings, pottery, sculpture, and paintings. In Peru, the Chavin civilization (1200-300 B.c.) produced elaborate stone sculpture, monumental architecture, and new techniques for textile manufacturing, as well as beads made from hammered sheet gold. 

As cultures grew more complex throughout Middle and South America, the need to identify rank and social position increased. In the early civilizations of Mexico, Guatemala, specially jade) and fabricated or cast gold beads became hallmarks of elite status. Their size, quantity, quality of design and workmanship, made them effective devices for communicating social distinctions. The unusually large size of Middle American Mayan jade beads, for example, reflects their role as repositories of wealth and symbols of status. Quantities of scarce (although locally available) materials, like jade, were concentrated in the hands of the elite, who retained these valuable substances in the form of oversize beads. 

A typical Tairona flared-tubular bead. The bead was formed by a craftsman who utilized the subtle banding of the quartz or carnelian stone to its best design advantage. Length, 8.1 cm.  Private collection.Farther south, however, cultures such as the Peruvian Chimu in the Andes Mountains did not have jade, and they lived a considerable distance from the sources of most other coveted materials such as turquoise, Spondylus shell, and malachite. Consequently, their beads tended to be smaller in scale, made from a wider range of raw materials, and used in more intricately designed assemblages. At the same time, since the Chimu were near sources of gold, their gold beads tended to be oversize.

Beads and Pre-Hispanic Trade

The Olmecs were responsible for creating a trading system that extended over much of Middle America. Jade was an important commodity in their commerce. Eventually, complex trading networks were established all across Middle and South America, involving the exchange of agricultural products for scarce mineral and marine resources. Many items of jewelry especially beads, were traded through this network and have been excavated hundreds of miles from their place of manufacture or the sources of their raw materials. For example, turquoise and sodalite used in beadmaking were exported from Bolivia to neighboring southern regions. Farther north, most of the turquoise used for beads and inlay works by Middle Americans was obtained from sources in present-day Arizona and New Mexico.

Middle and South American cultures are particularly noted for their exquisitely carved beads from jade, rock crystal, onyx, carnelian, and other semiprecious stones. Elaborate jade and serpentine beads, some with likenesses of animal or human deities, are unique to Middle American pre-Hispanic sites. Since Middle and South American beads were largely elite commodities, it is not surprising that they are generally of large size and made of scarce materials jade, gold, and rock crystal whose sources were frequently controlled by individuals of rank. Costa Rica is particularly famous for unusually long tubular beads, including a jade bead dating between A.D. 300 and 700 that is twenty-four inches long the longest perforated object known."

Mayan Jade Beads

Mayan jade beads dating from AD. 300 to 700. Jade lapidaries repeated in miniature many of the symbols that Mayan sculptors carved on their massive stelae and temples. Back row, left to right: flower design; gourd effigy bead; incised snake design; carved acrobatic figure. Middle row: tubular bead. Front row: bar bead; alligator effigy from Uxmal.
Like the Olmecs and the Aztecs later the Maya considered jade more precious than gold. Mayan nobility wore quantities of jade beads, and jade objects frequently accompanied elite individuals to the grave. All Mayan jade was imported, primarily from the region that today is Guatemala.

Although Mayan craftsmen were capable of creating precise and complex forms, their beads are rarely geometrically perfect, a fact that reflects both the stone's scarcity and its hardness. In order to lose minimal amounts of the precious material, a stone's irregularities and surface blemishes were incorporated into the finished design.

The Mayans preferred apple-colored and emerald green jade to the gray and blue-green shades favored by the Olmecs. When carving jade, Mayans attempted to work around the green layers of the stone, further contributing to the uneven shape of the finished bead. Jade does not flake like flint or obsidian, and it must be ground and polished, another reason why the finished object conforms to the stone's natural shape. The acceptance of these irregularities is additional evidence of the scarcity and high value placed on this stone.

 The mat motif incised on this jade bead and inlaid with red cinnabar has a long and important history in Mayan art. A mat was the Mayan equivalent of the royal throne. Only rulers had the right to sit on the mat and use its symbol. This bead dates to the first century .4.1). and is from Izapa on the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Mayan beads were generally treated as single objects, whether in adornment or as mediums of exchange. With the exception of an elaborate burial at Tikal, Guatemala, where a large collar of graduated jade beads was found on a skeleton, most perfectly matched sets of beads only occur as representations on carvings, pot-tety, and stelae. In reality, various sizes of tubular and spherical beads were combined in an irregular order.

Glass Beads

Although glass trade beads were never as important in Middle and South America as they were in North America, they were still treasured by the indigenous cultures. Historical accounts and several archaeological excavations document the introduction of glass beads into the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America by the early Spanish explorers, including Columbus, Cortes, and Francisco Pizarro. Many of these beads were gifts, others served as important trade items during the sixteenth century.

 A superb Olmec crescent-shaped jade pectoral bead from the first millennium B.c. The Olmec were skilled stone carvers. Their jade carvings exhibit the monumentality of their stone sculpture. The incised design rep-resents a stylized crocodile deity in profile. It was probably cut into the stone with a cactus spine using pumice abrasive. Red cinnabar fills the incisions. The soft, glossy finish was achieved by polishing with sand and water, a technique requiring great persistence. The use of cinnabar with burial objects considered precious (gold, silver and jade) was widespread throughout Middle and South Amer. ica. The custom was also common in China during the first millennium ac, a point frequently mentioned as evidence of and Peru, elaborately carved stone of ancient trans-Pacific con-tact.The majority of glass beads distributed in southeastern North America and in Middle and South America during the sixteenth century were monochrome drawn-cane beads (Bead Chart 38). Also documented are faceted, multilayered chevron beads and striped beads, similar to those manufactured by the Dutch. Of particular interest is the Nueva Cadiz bead, named for an archaeological site on an island off the coast of Venezuela occupied by the Spanish from 1498 to 1545.

Glass beads traded into Middle and South America following the initial period of Spanish settlement include many of the well-known Venetian polychrome and eye beads. The popularity of red Cornaline d'Aleppo beads in Guatemala, even today, has been attributed to their similarity to coral, a highly valued material introduced by the Spaniards. 

Typical South-western jewelry assembly of turquoise, coral, bone, shell, and silver beads. Southwestern tribes valued shell beads over those of glass. Shells symbolize water to a people for whom rainfall is crucial to survival. Among the southwestern Indians, turquoise and silver jewelry became an important repository of wealth. 123 These necklaces were probably made between 1920 and 1950, but the disk and tubular beads are ancient forms. Long center turquoise tubular bead, second necklace from bottom: length, 3.5 cm.In San Pedro Quiatoni, a small town in Oaxaca, heirloom necklaces includes unusual pendant beads formed of glass rods, looped at one end and averaging about two and a half inches in length. Of unknown origin, these beads were probably made in Europe and date between the sixteenth and eighteenth century.

 Jewelry and beads created in Middle and South America since the European con-quest exhibit varying degrees of influence from both the prehistoric and Spanish cultures. The craftsmen of Mexico, for example, where mineral wealth was such an integral part of the country's history, continue to produce large quantities of beads from silver, gold, and semiprecious stones, including amethyst, garnet, opal, crystal, and onyx. Jewelry designs frequently incorporate ancient Mayan, Aztec, or Mixtec motifs, or use gold-filigree techniques derived from eighteenth-century Spanish styles. This blend of native and Spanish heritage, using ancient and contemporary techniques, is characteristic of jewelry throughout Latin America.

                                               Writer - Lois Sherr Dubin
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