Article: Beadwork in the Arts of Africa and Beyond

 

What exactly are beads?

Beads are most often small and spherical, made from materials that are desirable because of qualities such as color, shine, or rarity. By definition, beads are pierced with a hole so that they may be strung together or attached to a surface through various techniques, and they are some of the first decorative objects made by man: archaeologists working in the Blombos cave in South Africa recently uncovered forty-one marine shell (Nassarius kraussianus) beads made approximately seventy-five thousand years ago.

The study of these small and precious objects provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of global trade, reminding us that people of different ages, places, and cultures may hold precisely the same objects dear. While this article primarily examines the use of glass beads in African art, it recognises beads as a global medium of expression used for millennia, and therefore draws on objects from across The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection to further our understanding.

Beads made from glass have served as a basic item of trade since ancient times, and in the sixteenth century the circulation of glass beads grew exponentially with the development of world trade. The intrinsic desirability of the bead—as well as the ease with which a relatively large quantity could be transported as cargo—made them an essential item of trade. As these beads became an ever more popular commodity, the tiny island of Murano—located about one mile north of Venice, Italy—developed into the global capital of glass-bead manufacture. By 1606 there were 251 bead-making firms recorded in Murano alone, and Venetian glassmakers are thought to have made some one hundred thousand different varieties of bead types and designs for global export.

To read the full article by James Green and see some fabulous beadwork click here

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