Beading: A Short History
The art of beading has been around nearly as long as humans have been. From the moment an ancient human found a shell or stone with a natural perforation and strung it on a piece of vine to wear around their neck, beading has been popular in one form or another. Whether those objects were worn as a religious symbol, for personal adornment or to permeate them with special powers doesn’t matter. Bead stringing is the first form of beading and it persists to today.
Thousands of years ago, ancient tribes of humans strung hollow animal bones on a fiber. It is believed that wearing the bones of the animal would either protect them from that animal or fill them with the animal’s spirit, making them a less fragile human. When early humans developed the tools required to pierce another object, creating a hole, then many varied items were strung for many different purposes. Sea shells, seed pods, nut shells, fresh water mollusk shells, and even animal teeth and bones have been found by archeologists with man-made perforations. Some people made actual beads of clay and others learned to add pigments to color the beads. As humans progressed, they began to enamel the clay beads.
About 3000 years ago, the Egyptians learned to make glass and the next logical step was creating glass beads. They elevated the art of beading to a high level that is still admired today for its beauty and elements of design. The Egyptians become skilled at adding pigments to the glass to craft very colorful beads. They combined these colored glass beads with precious and semi-precious gemstones and precious metals, such as gold and silver, to fashion jewelry pieces that were stunning. Beads became a much sought after commodity, so much so that they were used in commerce and exported throughout the ancient world.
Other cultures embraced the art of bead making. Most people think of China when they think of an abacus, or counting frame-a calculating device that utilizes beads that are slid on wires that have been strung on a wooden frame. The Babylonians were actually the first to use an abacus, although theirs was drawn in dust or sand and small pebbles were used instead of beads. The counter abacus with strings and beads can be credited to the Egyptians, or the Ancient Indian people, possibly. The Chinese played an important role in the evolution and development of the abacus.
Romans traded beads all across their empire, and even the ancient Celts and the Vikings were bead craftsmen who used beads to adorn themselves in the form of necklaces, amulets, and bracelets. Ancient Amerinds used beads as personal ornaments, in religious ceremonies and to decorate clothing articles. Native American bead art is popular in fashion, today and an important source of revenue for many people. Nearly everyone has seen turquoise beaded watch bands, or Native American necklaces and belts.
Beading was-and still is-a part of Native American Society. Many tribes had quilling societies that were sacred to the women. To join the society, a young girl had to be recruited and then she was tutored and carefully trained in the bead making arts. The process of making the quillwork was sacred, but the finished piece — to be worn or used by someone — was not considered sacred. The product was of secondary importance to the process of manufacture. The focus was on the thoughts and prayers and the work, not on the finished piece — very different from Western society, which tends to value the finished product and ignores the process of creation.
There are contemporary beaders who report that beading is almost a spiritual experience for them as they embrace the art of creation as much as the finished work, the focus being on perfecting the art rather than a race to complete the final product. Carol Willoughby at THE BEAD COTTAGE, [http://www.thebeadcottage.com/], is an example of a person who appreciates the spiritual side of beading as much as the finished product.