Archaeological Beads Course, 2012


As part of our work as archaeologists, we often have to analyse excavated beads from archaeological sites. These beads can be made from a variety of materials including, bones, stones, shells, seeds, ceramics and glass. Because beads represent some of the foremost trade items, they can be used to provide information on local, regional and even international trade. Because the materials and techniques used to create the beads varied across both time and space, they can be used as chronological markers and aid archaeologists in assigning relative dates to sites.  Thus said, it is important that every archaeologist has a basic understanding of how to sort, identify and classify beads correctly.

The bead identification course provided basic information on the history of beads, their role in humans society and how to classify them according the a variety of distinguishing physical features.

Course activities and educational content

Bead Course 2012 209The workshop was presented by Rania Faria, who has been studying archaeological beads since completing her Honours in Archaeology through the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology (UNISA). Rina is correctly busy with her Master’s in Archaeology (UCT) and is once again pursuing a greater understanding of beads in the archaeological record.

Bead Course 2012 094A bead chart (left) and modern beads (right).

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Participants had the opportunity to create their own bead life chains, thereby telling the story of their lives through beads. Each bead represented a different life event (birth, religious right, school, university, marriage, death of a loved one, birth of a child, etc). The idea behind the exercise was to convey the nation that beads hold special significance to their owners.

Bead life chains

Beads used within the bead life chain

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Our 188-page course manual contained a 42-page quick-reference section, which students could take with them into the field. The idea behind this is not to create bead analysis experts, but rather to guide students towards making more informed decisions when sorting beads in the field. We believe that if students acquire such basic knowledge, it will help future students working on collections by making these collections more organised through proper cataloging.