What do beads tell us about the past?

One common find are ancient beads. A friend of mine found a Native American stone bead nearby. It wasn’t necessarily ancient, considering Black Hawk didn’t surrender in Iowa until 1832. That was an end of an era, the defeat of the last major Native American uprising.

The bead she found was, according to her, in an area that “was the safe place camp for Poweshiek’s women, children, and elderly when the men left to fight in the Indian Wars.” Poweshiek was of a separate tribe from Black Hawk, but Black Hawk’s medicine man also had a village on the Iowa River close to Poweshiek’s village, the location not being far from where I live. The two tribes were allied at times.

(As a side note, Poweshiek was born after the American Revolution and died decades after the Black Hawk War, not too long before the Civil War began. His son, James Poweshiek, gave an interview about his father about the time my own father was born. Not exactly ancient history.)

I mention that bead because there is something compelling about a concrete piece of the past. Jewelry, in particular, is special. It is a personal item and yet serves no practical purpose other than as a trade good, maybe some symbolic significance as well in terms of culture and religion. It is strange what immense value such simple things had for people in the past. These kinds of trade goods made their way across continents, even from one continent to another, heck sometimes even across oceans. Ancient trade routes were vast.

I came across an amazing example of this. It is described in a Haaretz newspaper article by Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker.

The bead my friend found is probably not that old, but this bead found in Northern Europe is truly ancient. Talk about trade routes. I knew so-called Vikings had trade routes that went around much of Eurasia, included the North Atlantic, and down into the Levant and North Africa. I just had no idea that these trade routes would have existed as far back as some of the earliest civilizations. This Nordic grave bead is seriously old—from the article:

The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.

The date caught my attention. That was during the height of early civilization. A little over a century later, there was a mass collapse. Only Egypt survived and even it wasn’t the same afterward. Those early civilizations were fairly advanced and connected by trade. Different material goods were found in different places and trade was the solution. It’s amazing that this included the Nordic world, an area at that time not known for having any great empires.

Just paragraphs later, the author noted the same thing:

However the glass exchange almost stops around 1177 BCE – probably due to attacks by the Sea Peoples.

I would point out, though, that there isn’t agreement about the cause. The Sea Peoples were involved, but they might have been a result of other changes. In the region of these early civilizations, there was also decades of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding, and changing weather patterns. More likely than not, the Sea Peoples had societies that also were disrupted which sent them out marauding. They took advantage of already weakened empires.

By the way, these civilizations are what Julian Jaynes considered to be bicameral. It was during this era that nearly all of the Egyptian pyramids were built. Of eighteen pyramids, only two were built after the collapse of the other civilizations. And those two pyramids came five centuries after the collapse when entirely new societies were forming—during the early Axial Age. The kind of society that built those earliest pyramids was entirely different than the world we know—from Harvard Magazine (Who Built the Pyramids? by Jonathan Shaw):

If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!'”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

It’s hard for us to imagine that world. It seems bizarre to us that there would be such massive, difficult trade going on involving the large-scale movement of gems and beads that served absolutely freaking no practical purpose. A single trade item could travel for thousands of miles and the world was an extremely dangerous place back then. The motivations of ancient people are obscure to us. Why were so many people willing to risk their lives for what to us seems like a mere personal decoration?

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