Perhaps the most widely distributed beads in all of history, Indo-Pacific beads (a shortened form of “Indo-Pacific Monochrome Drawn Glass Beads”) can be traced back to the 4th Century BCE. First manufactured in Arikamedu, an ancient town in southern India, these beads are found in archaeological sites throughout India, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, and Africa.
Indo-Pacific beads are primarily drawn beads, that is, they are cut from a tube of molten glass. An iron rod is then inserted in the still-molten glob of glass to create the bead’s hole. Afterward, a quantity of beads are packed in ashes and stirred over high heat for 20 to 30 minutes to round off the sharp edges.
Another technique for beads found in Indo-Pacific archaeological sites, although less popular than drawn beads, is the technique known as “wound” beads. This involves heating canes of glass until molten, then stretching and “winding” the resulting strings of glass around iron rods to form individual beads. This technique results in layered beads of great depth and dimension.
These beads were manufactured in red, orange, yellow, green, white, and black, opaque-colored glass. Translucent beads were manufactured in hues of blue, green, violet, amber, and clear. Although they were primarily shaped in fat disks, some were round or oval-shaped. Few were larger than 6 mm.
Frequently called “trade-winds” beads, Indo-Pacific beads are the most widely-traded bead throughout all of history. They are found in archaeological sites in virtually all areas of the known ancient world. They appear by the thousands in royal tombs in Korea, Japan, China, Micronesia, the Philippines, Sumatra, Java, West Africa, and the Middle East.
They were widely used as currency in ancient times. This may help explain their widespread distribution. The center of their origin, southern India, lies on the road between the Orient and the Middle East, making the beads an intermediary, connecting merchants and their wares with buyers throughout the ancient world.
Evidence suggests Indo-Pacific beads traveled by both land and sea. They are found in coastal and riverside settlements, as well as inland ones. In areas that have been densely populated throughout human history, trade winds beads are sometimes found when a farmer plows a field, or hillside land erodes from natural causes.
Indo-Pacific beads are still manufactured today, using the same techniques as in ancient times. Because of their sheer numbers historically, trade winds beads are still widely available on the secondary market.
Copyright Sharon Shares, 2011