Beads had long been in existence before the great civilisations arose, however it is in these civilisations that beads rose in quality from the humble “natural beads” consisting of found objects slightly modified by the wearer to be created from semi precious stone, clay, gold and silver by specialists for the cities elite.
17-18th century BC Mesopotamia (old babylonian) pendant with bead bail1The beads from the first great civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, The Indus Valley and the Maya are particularly interesting due to the level of expertise needed to construct beads from gemstone, clay and precious metal one at a time by hand. These ancient beads are the forebears of the modern bead, bicones, rounds, flat lentil beads, heishi and tubular beads are cuts still seen in modern semi precious beads. Artists would need to chip raw gemstone and slowly drill and carve each bead by hand. Drilling would have been achieved by using a bronze hand drill and sand for its abrasive qualities. Clay beads with faience (coloured glazes) patterns would have to be discovered through trial and error which clay produced fine beads, what would not shatter in the kiln and what powdered rock produced what colour glaze.
Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran, Iraq and Sudan) is often attributed to being the site of the oldest civilisations of Sumer and Akkad, where the cities of Babylon and Ur (made household names by the Bible) were at their time the most powerful and wealthy cities in the area. Many of the earliest beads have been found there, concurrently however we have other civilisations that rose independently and beautiful beads have been found all over the world.
2500-2400BC (early dynastic Illa Period) lapis and gold choker Ur Mesopotamia1
The Royal Tombs at Ur (discovered by Archaeologist Leonard Wooley in 1920) contained enormous amounts of beads from the Early Great Civilisations made from Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian, ceramic faience and Gold. The vast quantity of beads has caused speculation that they were not only used as personal adornment but also as curtains and possibly as decoration on clothing.QueenPuabi1
Queen Pu-Abi’s tomb is a wealth of jewellery (mostly in the form of beads made from Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli and Gold) gives testament to her status as a Queen, for fine beads were solely the properties of the elite in Mesopotamia as only they could afford to purchase the raw material, often mined hundreds of kilometres away and commission an artist to create beads.
Mesopotamia traded with Egypt (Lower Egypt) and Nubia (Upper Egypt and Ethiopia) and also with the unusual civilisation that existed in the Indus Valley (India) beads of all cultures has been found spread around the ancient trade routes between these civilisations. Mesopotamia was famed for it’s beautiful Carnelian beads, a favourite of that society.
Egypt favoured Lapis Lazuli and prized it amongst all other gemstones. The Chinese favoured jade for it was the “stone of heaven” and created glass imitations of the stone to satisfy demand. The Mayan were lovers of gold and adorned themselves in the precious metal.
Nearly all of the jewellery created in these ancient civilisations utilised beads and incorporated them into the finished design. The bead specialist would have had a high social standing in society for his craft (and I say ‘his’ as it was mostly men that were the specialists) beads would have played an important trade role and would have been highly valued as a commodity. Carnelian beads crafted in Mesopotamia have been found in Egypt and The Indus Valley, whilst Lapis Lazuli beads crafted in Egypt have been found in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley respectively. The Mayan and the Chinese were separate cultures locked off from trade routes by their natural barriers. (China has mountains) and the Mayan were very far removed from all the other civilisations.
2500-2400BC (early dynastic Illa period) Lapis lazuli gold bicone beads from Ur Mesopotamia1It is believed that the Egyptians first created glass beads and invented many of the techniques we see today – the core, winding, faience and mosaic. Independently the Chinese also invented techniques notably using lead for the softer quality of the glass to make beads. The Etruscans and Phoenicians (peoples that resided on the coast and midland of Canaan and Syria, now modern Lebanon) created unique beads using new methods – distinctive flat round beads, which were exported across the Mediterranean. Glass beads were often strung with pure gold beads and were worn that way by the peoples of Canaan and Syria.
Roman glass beads (not actually made in Rome but as Rome conquered a great deal of the Mediterranean all around Switzerland, lower Italy (Venice) Germany, Italy, Egypt and Syria) are relatively modern. As each civilisation fell techniques were lost, but as a new civilisation rose techniques were rediscovered core wound beads were replaced by pipe blown glass beads and the decline of core wound beads was seen in the early part of the millennium, however carved gemstones and gold beads were still highly popular and all remain so today – Beading Forum.
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Scarre, Christopher. & Fagan, Brian M., Ancient Civilisations 2nd Edition, Upper Saddle River (NJ), Prentice Hall, 2003
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Crawford, Harriet., “Sumer and the Sumerians 2nd Edition” Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2004
Bahn, Paul & Renfrew, Colin., Archaeology – Theory Pracice & Methods 4th Edition, London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2004