By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
Beads are one of the more fascinating artifact types that historical archaeologists find, catalogue, analyze, and interpret. They’re tiny, shiny, colorful artifacts worn on jewelry, around necks or dangling from ears, sewn onto waistcoats and gowns, pockets and purses, linked on rosaries, and even affixed to handles of knives and forks. The fascination with beads began in prehistoric times and continues today.
Despite their miniscule size, beads are complex little artifacts and individuals have devoted their careers to developing and implementing typologies that allow for ease of comparison between assemblages. Unfortunately, these typologies are what archaeologists describe as etic. An etic perspective is one taken by an observer; an emic perspective is a description of a behavior or practice made by the actual participant. In other words, we as archaeologists have developed types that may or may not have meant anything to the bead wearers of the past. Bead typologies are dependent upon the following variables: method of manufacture (drawn versus wound); structure (or how many layers of glass make up the individual bead); shape; and decoration. So, knowing that we have eight different bead types from the midden helps us to compare our assemblage to other sites, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how these beads were used or worn.
Additionally, archaeologists also take an etic perspective when we catalogue beads individually. Past wearers of beads probably would have thought of them as part of the object they made up – a necklace of multiple beads, for example, or decoration on a piece of clothing. Of the eight bead types we found at Mount Vernon, could they all have been strung on the same necklace or attached to the same article of clothing? These are questions that we may never be able to definitely answer, which makes bead assemblages all the more tricky to interpret!
Another factor that makes beads difficult to study is the fact that they rarely appear in the documentary record. Our go-to sources on material culture here at Mount Vernon (probate inventories, George Washington’s invoices and orders for goods, and local store accounts) are for the most part silent on beads. The only reference that appears for beads in Washington’s invoices and orders is one dating to 1764 where he asked Robert Cary for “a pair of French bead Earrings and necklace.” In returned, Cary supplied Washington with a “Turkey stone col[ore]d Necklace and Earings [sic]” for the price of £1.11.6.
Barbara Heath used advertisements for runaway slaves to better understand the personal adornment practices of slaves in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas from 1730 through 1826. Only five individuals, all from Maryland, were described in the ads as wearing or having beads. Heath also has found evidence that African women wore beads in their hair and captives arriving on ships in Virginia wearing strings of beads around their necks, arms, and waists.
The archaeological record therefore becomes crucial to exploring the variety and context of beads to contribute to understanding personal adornment. Next week’s blog will discuss the South Grove Midden’s bead assemblage!