A brief history of beadwork across the world

January 19, 2024

Where did beadwork originate from?

Some of the earliest forms of beadwork were found at archaeological sites in Africa, Middle East and Sungir (present day Russia), but virtually all continents have extensive bead use histories.

The oldest beads were naturally punctured objects. These objects would range from stones, seeds, shells, animal teeth etc. Many of the earliest examples were found in Kenya and Turkey.

The earliest bead dates are debated between 300,000-100,000 B.C.E. and 43,000-38,000 B.C.E. So old!

Kayamoko-loom-beads
Kayamoko

Earliest forms of beadwork

Russia

Given the context of the debate that made me look into this topic, it was particularly interesting to me that in 1955, a large archaeological site was discovered in Sungir, which is located about 200 kilometers outside of Moscow (which is where I was born).  The human remains found at the site, date back to 34,000 to 30,000 B.C. and show an elaborate burial of an adult male and two adolescents. 

The adult’s body was covered with approximately 13,000 beads, primarily made of ivory.  The beads were presumably threaded using sinew or fibers derived from plants, though it was difficult to make solid conclusions, because these materials have deteriorated over time.

Africa

In Ancient Egypt, beautiful beadwork was discovered at burial grounds that date back to 14th century B.C.  Amazingly, these sites show some of the earliest forms of glass beads, supplementing the punctured stones, seeds, shells and animal teeth that were more prevalent at the time.

In Kenya, most beads were initially created from clay, wood, bone, copper and brass.  Throughout Africa, beadwork was used to decorate ornamental ceremonial headdresses, tunics, masks and baskets.  When glass beads were introduced to the region through trade, seed beads became a part of materials used for embroidery and embellishments of clothes and other objects.

Europe

Many forms of beadwork were used in Ancient Greece, Turkey and the Roman Empire, where beads were applied to decorate items used for religious ceremonies. Around 14th century, Murano glass beads became popular in Italy, and along with pearls were used to decorate the clothing of the wealthy during the Renaissance. 

By the 17th century, beadwork became very popular in England, where purses, jewelry boxes, small pictures and baskets were liberally decorated with beads, pearls and gilt thread.

Asia

Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet and India also have a rich history of beads.  India began making and exporting stone beads as early as 2000 B.C. From there, beads slowly began to spread to East and Southeast Asia.  In Japan, beads were frequently used to decorate clothing and weapons. 

In Phillipines, glass beads were used as an indication of social and economic status and the owner’s wealth in the community. Many gold beads were discovered at archaeological sites, suggesting important influences of gold mining in the region.

Americas

Native American tribes used shells, pearls, bones, teeth and stones to decorate their clothing and items used for religious ceremonies.  The early designs were mostly geometrical.

Interestingly, seed beads were introduced to Native Americans through European trade in the mid-1800s.  These led to an expanded repertoire of patterns, among which floral designs became particularly popular.  Bead embroidery was used to ornament thigh boots, capes and tunics.

These are just a few examples, but I am sure that a lot more can be uncovered when we look deeper into this subject. But even with this high level view, it appears that beadwork has been used all over the world, ranging from ancient traditions in different countries to a lot of cross-pollination across cultures and continents. 

Each culture has its own specific techniques and prevalent designs, which make their work unique and beautiful.

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