Guidelines for Bead Research

Guidelines for Bead Research

Bead Research Dos and Don’ts
 by Karlis Karklins

As ever-increasing numbers of people are drawn to beads, more and more of them want to know more and more about various aspects of beads and beadwork. These individuals include archaeologists, ethnographers, conservators and museologists, as well as bead stringers, beadmakers, artisans and collectors, among others. Some people are content to peruse books and articles on whatever aspect of beads that interests them, while others are driven to boldly go where no researcher has gone before. It is for these brave souls that the following list of some bead research dos and don’ts is intended. Much of this will be old hat to some. For the others, I hope that you will find this information of use in your respective endeavors.

First, the Dos:

DO become familiar with your subject matter.
Reading a few popular books and articles on beads and viewing one or two museum displays will not make you an instant bead expert. Before you begin any project, you need to seriously review the relevant literature. The best way to start off is to consult bibliographies. For North American trade beads, there are the two bibliographies compiled by Karklins and Sprague A Bibliography of Glass Trade Beads in North America (1980), followed by the First Supplement (1987). Although admittedly outdated, they still provide relevant references for researchers.

Relevant articles and monographs published since 1985 may be found in “Researching the World’s Beads: An Annotated Bibliography.” This resource covers the whole world and concentrates on archaeological material. Beadwork is not included (unless it is found in an archaeological context) as that subject deserves a bibliography of its own. Due to its size, the bibliography has been divided into nine major political-geographical groups, two specialized theme groups, and a general/miscellaneous group.

DO take archaeology and ethnology courses.
Archaeologists and ethnologists go to university for years to be able to properly identify, classify, describe, and interpret the objects they study. A person without this training is definitely handicapped and can get into real trouble when it comes to placing beads and beadwork into a sociocultural or historical framework. If you are serious about bead research and plan to work on either archaeological or ethnographical materials, take a few introductory college courses in the relevant fields to at least get you off on the right foot. If you are too busy to do the course work, audit the class. Reading books on the subject is fine, but participating in a class and discussing problems with the professor and the other students can really give you a good foundation for whatever research you are planning to do.

DO be careful when interpreting bead material.
One must be very careful when interpreting archaeological and ethnographic material. For instance, found loose in North American archaeological contexts, seed beads are generally considered to have been used in embroidery but this was not always the case, especially during the early contact period when various cultural groups used them for necklaces and bracelets. Similarly, large beads are classified as necklace beads by many researchers but also served to adorn various objects as well as animals.

The designs that appear on ethnic beadwork can also be problematical. One really needs to thoroughly study the symbolism of the group that produced a particular piece of beadwork to provide a correct interpretation of what the design elements represent. The study should ideally include input from the people whose culture they relate to. Also bear in mind that in some cultures, design elements have different meanings, depending on which sex utilizes them.

DO consult the experts.
Even if you are truly brilliant, you will eventually have questions that seem to be unanswerable. This is the time to stop tearing out your hair and consult an expert. As the officers of the Society of Bead Researchers between them know many researchers around the world, they can usually tell you who you should contact with a specific question. Most pros will gladly answer questions free of charge. If the questions are complex, however, and require research, or if specimens are submitted for identification or interpretation, a fee may be levied, especially by those who operate consulting firms. But what is a small payment compared to premature baldness or ulcers caused by frustrating bead questions?

DO use a microscope.
A binocular microscope is probably one of the handiest things that a bead researcher can possess besides an inquisitive mind. It reveals details indistinct to the unaided eye, and can help to resolve questions regarding how a bead was made, if it has been flashed, what colors the layers are of small multi-layered beads, and so forth. Some binocular microscopes are quite expensive but there are cheaper versions such as those used by gemologists. They can occasionally be obtained second hand. Numerous good ones are available on eBay. If you cannot afford one, biology and geology labs at universities usually have them and getting permission to use one should not be difficult.

DO include good color illustrations in your reports.
If you are planning to publish your findings, make sure you include good color photographs or drawings which show details. B&W photos, especially out-of-focus ones, just do not suffice. If you do not feel competent enough to get good results, contact a professional photographer, though keep in mind that photographing beads does take special skill and just because a photographer is good at portrait photography does not mean that he or she will do as well on a group of beads. If your photographs are sharp and clear, and the color is accurate, just about anyone can figure out what you have, no matter how poor your descriptions might be.

DO join the Society of Bead Researchers.
The Society of Bead Researchers was formed in 1981 to foster serious research on beads of all materials and periods, and to expedite the dissemination of the resultant knowledge. To facilitate these aims, the Society publishes a semi-annual newsletter, The Bead Forum, and an annual journal, Beads. If you are seriously interested in beads, you really should be a member. That way you can find out what other researchers are doing and also share your information with them. If we continue to share our knowledge, we will achieve much more than by working as isolated researchers scattered all over the world.

For further information on the Society of Bead Researchers, see our About Us page.

Now for the Don’ts:

DON’T believe everything you read or hear.
There is a lot of misinformation about beads out there — in books, in articles, in talks, on the Web — and weeding out the good from the bad takes a bit of expertise. Until you gain this expertise through long hours of original research, keep an open mind. If something doesn’t sound right or if it conflicts with someone else’s statements, check it out with others working in the field. If you are working on ground-breaking material, use your common sense.

Researchers are constantly fine-tuning bead chronologies and more accurately determining the place(s) of manufacture for specific bead types. Consequently, books and articles written 20 or more years ago may present information that is quite outdated. This is especially true of such classics as van der Sleen’s A Handbook on Beads and Horace Beck’s Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants. I would, however, still strongly recommend that you read both of these volumes, if for nothing else than to gain an historical perspective on the field of bead research. Unfortunately, what I have said above for older publications is also true of much more recent reports on beads written by individuals who do not fully understand the subject.

As for what you are told, if someone is trying to sell you a bead or a piece of beadwork, especially in developing countries, he or she will frequently tell you just about anything to make the sale. Other individuals will tell you stories that blend legend with historical fact and tribal pride. This sort of information must not be taken at face value. Ethnographers often spend years living with the people they are studying, familiarizing themselves with their culture, learning their language, and gaining their confidence. You cannot hope to achieve this during a two-hour stop at a market in Ghana or Sarawak, so remember to keep an open mind in this sort of situation and pose your questions as craftily as the dealers formulate their answers.

Also keep in mind that in some cultures, rather than offend a person by having to give a negative response, the person being questioned (and this includes governmental officials and representatives) will tell what we in our culture would consider an outright lie but to them is the polite thing to do. Roderick Sprague encountered this during his stay in China some years back. The misinformation was not given maliciously but to keep from possibly offending the researcher (political correctness strikes again). Taking such an answer at face value could, therefore, have serious implications concerning your findings. In Rick’s case, continued questioning of other individuals garnered the correct information.

Finally, remember that some people just like to pull researcher’s legs for the heck of it, so beware!

DON’T ask questions which can be answered with a yes or no.
No one wants to look stupid, especially to a foreigner, so rather than appear like an ignoramus and keep saying “I don’t know” to your numerous queries about a certain bead or piece of beadwork, given the opportunity, a native informant will generally jump at the chance to say either “yes” or “no,” depending on which response seems most likely to please the person asking the question.

DON’T buy archaeological specimens.
I cannot stress this enough. Purchasing specimens recovered from archaeological contexts, especially those obtained by illicit digging, contributes to the wholesale destruction of archaeological sites all over the world. This is now most prevalent in Mali and Southeast Asia where ancient sites look more like World War I battlefields after the looters have done their work. This has resulted in the loss of truly incredible — and irreplaceable — amounts of scientific data. It is ironic that many collectors who buy such looted beads then turn to archaeologists to get more information about them, information the archaeologists cannot provide because the contexts in which the beads were found have been destroyed.

And sometimes it is not just information that is lost but human dignity as well. The worldwide craving for ancient beads has driven some looters to the ghoulish practice of unearthing recent human burials which were buried with heirloom beads. This has led elderly women in some regions of Southeast Asia to request that their old beads be pulverized before being interred with them upon their death.

As an archaeologist who looks upon beads as repositories of information and not just beautiful objects, my fervent hope is that you will not buy ancient beads and will tell others to do the same. While some come from collections that were amassed by archaeologists and others in the old days through legal means, the majority available today have been illegally plundered from sites that local governments cannot protect because of a lack of proper funding. Let us help these nations protect what remains of their heritage.

Originally published in The Bead Forum, No. 32 (1998), and revised in 2015.