Beads are small objects of varying shape that are pierced and strung together as necklaces, bracelets, belts, headbands, and the like. From prehistoric times, beads have also been attached to clothing or to various parts of the face such as the ears and nose.
Beads are made of many materials, most commonly glass, metal, stone, coral, amber, gems, shell, and wood. Magical properties have been ascribed to many of these materials through the ages, and archaeologists believe that early kinds of beads were worn as amulets or talismans for religious or ceremonial reasons, with ornamentation as only a secondary purpose. Beads also came to be used in trade; hence beads found in archaeological sites are important indicators of ancient trade routes.
The English word "bead" is derived from Middle English bede, meaning "prayer". The name was first transferred to strung objects used in prayer, such as rosaries (prayer beads), and then to other kinds of strung objects.
Early Makers of Beads
No date for the first manufacture of beads can be given with certainty, but shell bead necklaces from the Old Stone Age have been found. Greater quantities and more varieties of beads have been found dating from around 4000 B.C., or toward the latter part of the New Stone Age. Beads made of translucent calcite in a segmented, or ribbed, shape have been found at Tell Arpachiyah in Mesopotamia and attributed to the early Halaf period of about 4000 B.C. Other early examples come from predynastic Egyptian sites. These beads were made of stone and of blue faience, a glazed earthenware formed of a sand core of quartz grains cemented together and glazed over with copper salts or manganese. This sand-core technique was later adapted for pottery making. Segmented beads of faience have been discovered in Egyptian graves of about 2800-2600 B.C.
Beads similar to the Egyptian type were unearthed from Bronze Age sites in Britain; they may have been carried to Britain by traders from Crete and Mycenae. A Bronze Age necklace of tin, faience, and amber beads found in Holland is considered evidence that a trade route from the
Baltic to England, with amber going in one, direction and tin in the other, passed through Holland. Ostrich-eggshell beads from Africa have been unearthed in Nineveh, Greece, and Rome.
Varieties of Beads
Glass is known to have been used for beaded collars and breastplates from the end of the Old Kingdom period in Egypt, and glass beads were common during part of the 18th dynasty. Glass beads found at Tell el Amarna, Egypt, dated about 1370 B.C. (18th dynasty), correspond to tubular, segmented beads found at Knossos, dated about 1600 B.C., and to beads found in European Bronze Age sites.
A popular type of glass bead was the "eye" bead, made of opaque glass with circles or rods of different-colored glass (the "eyes") pressed into the surface. Notable in Etruscan times were glass "button" beads, made of halves of different-colored buttons cemented together. The bore and the thread passed through the cement, and only rarely through the glass. Glass beads were very widely used and, in certain eras, are the only evidence of the use of glass in ancient times. In Italy the manufacture of glass beads on the island of Murano, near Venice, began in the 13th century and became a profitable industry.
In some African tribes, beads were long used in social customs, especially courtship. Love letters in beadwork were common, the pattern and color indicating the meaning. American Indian tribes recorded legends in beadwork, using codes and patterns that were handed down through generations. The American Indians also used strands or belts of beads, called wampum, for barter or as money. The practice was adopted by European traders and colonists, who spread various types of wampum over the continent.
In the modern world, beads are used mainly for decoration. The decorative bead industry reached a peak during the Victorian era. Heavily beaded fashions went out of style in the early 20th century but had a new vogue in fashions in the 1920's and again in the 1960's. Beadwork and bead collection continue as hobbies.