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Those of us who harbor a passion for beading and creating beadwork rarely stop to think of the millennia of history behind these simplest of artifacts. If we spent some time with archeologists, we’d see that they are ready to throw a celebration when beads are turned up in at excavation site. Beads have survived the ravages of time, lasting for thousands of years in some cases.
During the past 2.5 million years that we humans have been leaving our mark on planet Earth, it has been our ability to fashion utilitarian tools that has set us up above the other creatures of the planet. With all that evolving and migrating and culture building, it wasn’t until about 35,000 years ago that the archeological record shows we began to shift our way of thinking. This alteration in our thought processes was a cultural milestone.
Large amounts of ancient objects found at European historical sites show that our ancestors began to use materials differently, shaping them not just into tools but also fashioning them into symbols. Some of the earliest of these cultural symbols were beads.
The first beads were made of stone—mostly forms of soft stone. Our ancestors also fashioned beads out of animal teeth, tusks of animals such as wooly mammoths, and shell. They carved figurines and created drawings that illustrated our growing awareness of ourselves, our relationships to others, and our place in the world around us.
As people evolved and cultures blossomed, people began to adorn themselves with long strands of beads. Some tribal centers were used as bead manufacturing and trade centers where the people used materials from distant places to practice their craft. It is during this and the following 10,000 years that we see the spread of beads fashioned from what is today considered semi-precious gemstones, bone, shell, tusks, wood, and seeds.
As nomadic hunters began to establish permanent settlements and produce their own food, they came to exchange goods and services over a vast area of the Mediterranean world. Beads became a major trading commodity, the rarer and more intricately made ones being the most desirable.
By the time the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India began to flourish, the jeweler class of craftsmen was producing superb beads that were used as adornments and status symbols. Beadwork was refined and began to be used on collars, belts, and other clothing. New skills and new materials, such as glass, began to be substituted for gemstones—especially the rare gemstones.
Beads were popular during the Roman Empire, and, as the Empire began to weaken, the Germanic tribes that began to overrun Europe continued to value beads as adornments, as a means of identifying rank, and as portable wealth. As the Christian movement swept the regions, adornment for the sake of adornment was frowned on. Beads became an important staple in the religious rituals, such as in praying the rosary.
Rosary beads served both the upper class and the illiterate masses. By the 15th century, bead-making was a thriving industry. Venice, Italy, was the bead capitol of the world at that time. Not only were beads used for adornment and as status symbols, many gemstone beads were believed to be imbued with mystical powers.
When Columbus set off on his historic journey, he took trade beads with him for use as universal currency. He rightly surmised that any civilizations he encountered would be manufacturing beads and prizing them as much as his own culture did. In fact, trade bead networks in the Americas long predated the first European contact.
Shell beads were first prized in the Americas about 8,000 years ago. A string of these beads was found in the Nevada area but its origin was the California coast. The trading of beads, particularly wampum or shell, was practiced into the early 18th century in North America.
Beads are no longer used as a form of currency but continue to remain popular as ritual objects, status symbols, mystical objects, and as decorative fashion jewelry. In the 19th century, women of “society” and Indian princes displayed their great fortunes through the wearing of body ornaments made of magnificent jewels and pearls.
In the 20th century and beyond, the rise of the mass-market and costume jewelry has taken the ancient art of bead making and jewelry construction in new directions. Precious and semi-precious gemstones are still prized for their exceptional beauty by creative artisans.
From the earliest ages, when a child takes simple joy in stringing seeds and macaroni, the love of beads continues to play out along the lines of human history.