9th Experimental Archaeology Conference poster – Thornton

Keeping it simple: Low technology glass bead production in the African context

Jonathan Thornton

Buffalo State University

The making of glass and glass beads has often been represented as requiring technological sophistication. Partly because of these assumptions, almost all glass beads excavated in Iron Age contexts in South Africa (those found at the Mapungubwe site, for example) have been ascribed to importation from the Middle East, India, or Southeast Asia. This literature has assumed such beads were made using either of two techniques, winding and drawing. Both indigenous methods in use elsewhere in twentieth- and twentieth-first century Africa, however, and the author’s experimental replication of bead-making techniques and analysis of the beads produced, suggest that African craftspeople could have produced some of the bead types excavated in South Africa. Scholars have observed/documented West African bead-making methods involving powdered glass, either acquired by trade or made locally. These “powder glass” beads can be made from dry powder fired in ceramic molds, or they can be
wet-formed using a temporary binder and fired without a mould. The author’s experimental replication shows that these powder methods produce beads that are easily mistaken for ones made by winding and drawing, (though microscopy can show differences). Further experiments suggest those methods too may have been used by African bead-makers. They demonstrate that simple and small charcoal-fired furnace pots, modelled after “top flame”
furnaces documented in West Africa, generate ample heat for melting glass, such that even unskilled workers are able to wind or draw beads using such equipment. The thrust of the experimental work has been to make functional equipment as small and ephemeral as possible using methods and materials available to Iron Age African workers. The work has focused on Africa, but has implications for other societies, since it challenges the assumed necessity of large, well-equipped glass-making shops, at least for such small objects as beads.

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