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Glass Trade Beads

Analysis has begun on the beads excavated at the Bryson-Paddock site (34KA5) in the past few years. Liz Tereba, OU graduate student, and Byron Sudbury who has previously worked on Bryson Paddock and Deer Creek artifacts are both looking at the beads. The majority of these beads are European glass trade beads and they may help archaeologists determine more precisely the dates of occupation at Bryson-Paddock.

The glass bead industry of Venice blossomed in the 16th century as beads became a major trade item with the Americas and Africa. By the 17th century, glassmakers had thriving businesses in many European countries including France. The bead guilds closely guarded trade secrets and craftsmen were sworn to secrecy under penalty of death. As a result, there is very little documentation of these techniques and places of manufacture.

While we may never know just where the Bryson-Paddock beads were manufactured, they made the long journey from Europe to the New Orleans French settlement in the first half of the 18th century as cargo on sailing ships. Traders moved them up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas Post in southeastern Arkansas. From here the journey was most likely by canoe, some 500 miles on the fickle Arkansas River which might have been raging with floodwaters or barely flowing depending on the season and local rainfall. French traders found two Wichita sites along the west side of the Arkansas River in what is now Kay County, Oklahoma. The Wichita were prosperous farming and hunting people who lived in villages throughout the Southern Plains. Trade with the French brought metal tools like axes, guns, knives, and scissors and decorative items like mirrors and beads. In exchange the Wichita offered bison hides and meat which were probably processed at the Bryson-Paddock site by the Wichita before being transported downstream on rafts when the river was high enough to allow navigation. Acquisition of Spanish horses by the Wichita significantly increased their ability to harvest and transport bison; however, the Wichita found French guns much less efficient in bison hunts than their own traditional bow and arrows.

Most of the beads recovered from Bryson-Paddock are "drawn." This is a method of manufacture in which a bubble of air is blown into a blob of molten glass on the end of a metal tube. Another metal rod is placed in the other end of the glass and the two rod holders walk quickly in opposite directions "drawing" out a long tube of glass known as a cane. The initial bubble is stretched along with the glass to provide the central hole in the cane. The cane is then broken into short tubes which can be tumbled in sand to smooth the sharp edges. Some of the Bryson-Paddock beads are white with blue stripes. To produce these beads, small blue canes are arranged inside a container which then has the bubble of molten glass placed in it. The container is placed in a furnace long enough to allow the blue canes to meld with the white glass and then the whole mass is drawn so that the blue canes stretch with the white. The beads shown below are of this variety. The first bead still has its blue canes in place while the second bead is more weathered and the blue canes have eroded away. In some of the striped beads, the cane was twisted so that the stripes twist around the bead's axis.

Drawn bead with blue strips

Drawn bead with stripes weathered away

For more bead images, click here.


Kidd, K.E. and Kidd, M.A., "A Classification System for Glass Beads for the Use of Field Archaeologists," Appendix to Proceedings of the 1982 Glass Trade Bead Conference, Research Records No. 16, Rochester Museum and Science Center, 1983.

Thanks to Richard Drass for providing the bead images.

Thanks to Laurie Burgess of the Smithsonian Institution for clarification of bead manufacturing techniques.

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