Visual Arts

“From Caves to Castles: If Beads Could Talk” at Glendale's Bead Museum Has a Bead on This Ancient Craft

In some craft circles, residents of Glendale, Arizona, are envied beyond belief and it takes only one visit to the Bead Museum to understand why.

These beads aren't just for crafters (although the gift shop sells some amazing supplies). The displays are for anyone interested in the history of the human race.

With more than 100,000 artifacts — ranging from intricate, traditional Native American contemporary beadwork to Victorian-era beads made from butterfly wings to 40,000-year-old shell beads from Kenya — this 8,000-square-foot treasure trove houses one of the greatest permanent bead collections in the country. That doesn't make it immune to the bad economy, of course. This spring, the non-profit museum was in danger of closing; but with the help of local, domestic, and international donations, it's managed to keep the doors open (although the museum remains in "dire straits," as a staffer put it). In late September, the museum opened its current exhibition, "From Caves to Castles: If Beads Could Talk," scheduled to run through July 2010.

I recommend getting over there to see it. Quick.

Working clockwise around the gallery, you'll discover first-find ancient beads, from the Paleolithic/Old Stone Age to the Post Roman Period. That means the oldest bead is, astoundingly, about 2 million years old, while the youngest is 500. It's anthropology, archeology, and art history rolled into one. And it happens to be pretty to look at, too.

The Paleolithic beads are made of shells, teeth, ostrich eggshell, and soft stone. They aren't the most beautiful, by our contemporary standards, but they mark the beginning of the human urge to decorate one's body and, most importantly, attach symbolism to object. Beads predate rock art and carved figurines and are often considered the first art objects.

Each time period has a glass case (or two) that protects the ancient beads and small artifacts. Panels give quick explanations of the significant technological and cultural advances, and they often read in first person, from the bead's point of view.

Wandering through, you'll examine the miniature beads of turquoise and lapis lazuli (a gorgeous blue stone found only in present-day Afghanistan) from the Bronze Age. The neighboring Iron Age (1200-332 BCE) case shows off five gorgeous glass beads shaped like beetles. Multi-colored glass beads — some even depicting human faces — came about in the Great Age of Empires (300-200 BCE). And, finally, the Post Roman Period (ending around 1453 CE) produced more elaborate glass decoration, specifically in the Islamic cultures. One particularly impressive bead, about the size of an adult big toe, is black glass with vibrant, white squiggly lines dancing across the surface. Teal glass orbs line the edges.

Without the panels to guide me, I doubt I would have been able to tell the difference between a million-year-old bead and one that's a thousand years old. Yet, despite the age of any of these beads, their aesthetic, function, and symbolism barely differ from the beads of today. We wear them as decoration and evidence of our status. Beads are still used as religious symbol: One bead on a rosary represents one prayer in a sacred Catholic ritual, for example.

"From Caves to Castles" shows how the contemporary human is not so different from a person who lived 2 million years ago . . . from a bead's perspective, anyway.

So if beads could talk, they wouldn't really have to. They already say so much.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi