Ancient Bead Production: The History of the Carnelian Beads

ancient carnelian beads isolated

Carnelian beads of top quality make any creation beautiful with their deep reddish-orange color. It was a highly sought-after stone centuries ago because of its rich color. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal as a burial chamber for his beloved wife and queen, Mumtaz, when she died. It was her favorite stone and is the primary decorative gemstone in the building’s facade.

 

What is Carnelian?


Carnelian comes from the Latin word for flesh, Carne. Carnelian graduates in translucency from translucent to non-translucent and the shine is waxy and creamy to vitreous. It represents a broad array of colors from yellow to orange to dark reddish-brown.

Carnelian is a volcanic stone similar to chalcedony, blended with iron oxides that give the stone its rusty color. The oxides distribute uniformly or in graduation. The patterns of oxidation are sometimes seen as reddish dots (also called blood spots by the Tibetans) or cloudy patches. It can be abraded, knapped and polished like flint.

 

The Look that Makes it so Popular


Carnelian quality varies. Ideally, whether used for beads or other forms or art, carnelian should be a uniform, deep translucent red-orange color and without banding. It should also be as red, as translucent and as homogenous as possible. This combination has always been rare to find in nature and is not easy to make with additional treatment of the stone.

Red symbolized blood in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and therefore energy and life. The ancient Indians most likely had similar beliefs as one can see in the inlay work of the Taj Mahal that used only the best quality of carnelian. Ideal quality pieces usually are found in smaller stones.

Ancient people also valued the more common orange-yellowish carnelian because of its magical qualities. The demand for the stone was significant in ancient times, and since it was challenging to find in nature, humans often got creative.

 

Indus Valley Harappan Civilization


Carnelian beads first appeared in the Oman Peninsula during the Neolithic period, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the Indus Valley people that there was a significant increase in the use of the carnelian bead. This civilization was well-known for its carnelian bead creation process and the exportation of beads and jewelry. This was partly because this region had the world’s most significant source of carnelian on the Deccan Plateau in the central area of the Indian subcontinent.

There is a six-step process to manufacture carnelian beads.

archaeological site harappa indus valley

1. Extraction


Carnelian is found in two forms in nature: as a primary deposit in veins or as a secondary deposit found in the form of pebbles. Mines were dug down 30 to 35 feet, and the carnelian was taken out in blocks of stone that weighed one to two pounds. Once brought to the surface, workers chipped the rocks on the spot.

 

2. Heat Treatment


This vital stage has two objectives: one technical and one aesthetic. The heating process enhances the red color of the stone. Heating the stone creates Indus red carnelian from what was originally yellow pebbles. It creates the bright red or orange-red color and enhances the material’s shine. This process does not alter the carnelian’s translucency.

 

3. Knapping


Knapping is the shaping of the stone by striking it with sharp blows, much like shaping flint into arrowheads. In ancient times, raw stones were sawed by hand and then chipped into shape with hammers or rocks.

Many times, a stake of hard material is secured in the ground at a 45-degree angle. The person sits on the ground and secures the stake with one knee. They hold the stone in their left hand, and with their right, they softly strike the bead so the stake controls it. This allows the bead maker to chip off flakes without the stone breaking.

 

4. Abrasion


This process forcefully rubs the bead with an abrasive to remove the knapping traces.

 

5. The Perforation Process


macro shot carnelian gem

People from the Oman Peninsula and Armenia used this method the most frequently. It was known as the rotary drilling technique. Both sides of the bead are dotted to prepare the surface for the drill. The perforation process involved bow-drilling or manual drilling.

Discovered in Iraq, the “Larsa Technique” was another process used. Here, only one side is dotted and, when close to the opposite side, a tool like the “punch” was used to complete the perforation.

 

6. Polishing


The artisans who polished the beads were not the same ones digging the stone out of the mines or the knapping and shaping. After drilling, the polishing was done by hand on different grinders with either quartzite or siltstone and finished on a wooden service. In ancient times, it could take up to five days to polish a single large bead.

It's no wonder that both ancient and modern people like to use carnelian in art and jewelry. The stone’s stunning colors and uniqueness make it a beautiful element of any art piece, whether it is something as grand as the Taj Mahal or a personal necklace or bracelet.