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Beads the Early Spaniards Brought

The first Europeans to come to the Americas were the Vikings, whose Vinland settlement has been excavated in Newfoundland. They brought beads -- a single glass one was found at the site -- but we don't know if they traded with them or not.

The first European voyage to have a lasting effect was that of Columbus. He had been in the West Africa trade, and probably had learned about the importance of beads from this experience. On his initial landing he gave away "glass beads which they hung on their necks."

We think we know what these beads are. Small, wound (made by twisting hot glass around a wire or rod) glass beads in green and yellow have been found at very early Spanish contact sites. "Little beads of green glass" and "green and yellow glass beads" are mentioned in subsequent entries in his diary.

They are made of lead glass, and the lead isotopes in them are consistent with Spanish lead. They last only about 50 years in the contact period trade.

These were not, however, the only beads Columbus had. He gave away an amber necklace to a local chief on the island of Hispaniola. This is somewhat ironic, as the Dominican Republic half of that island (the other half is Haiti) is today the world's second largest producer of this valuable material. There is no evidence that amber was exploited there before the coming of Europeans.

Then there is a necklace Columbus gave to another chief on the same island. It is described as "a collar of good bloodstones and very handsome beads of many pretty colors, which appeared very good in every way."

Chevron (middle) and Nueva Càdiz beads.

First, the bloodstones. Today a bloodstone is jasper that is deep green and speckled with red. However, for a long time the term was attached to carnelians, which are red, sometimes blood red. Their color suggested sympathetic magic and they were thought to be able to stop bleeding wounds.

What were "the handsome beads of many pretty colors?" This sounds like a good description of chevrons. The beginning of chevron manufacture goes back to at least 1480 in Venice. They are attractive beads and it is likely that they were in Columbus' store.

So, Columbus had several sorts of beads with him. Small wound green and yellow beads of lead glass made in Spain, amber beads from the Baltic region, carnelian from India and Chevrons from Venice.

This is not a surprise. Amber and Venetian beads would have been available in Spain. If Columbus did go out to West Africa with the Duarte Pacheco Pereira, as is suspected, he would have learned the value of beads in general and that of carnelians in particular, since carnelians are the only imported beads Pacheco records in his diary.

The chevron had the greatest impact. Hernando Cortés obviously expected to meet an important king as he landed in Mexico and began his drive toward the heart of the Aztec Empire. Among the rich gifts he brought were, "some margaritas, stones with many intricate designs in them, and a string of twisted glass beads packed in cotton scented with musk...."

A "margarita" is not a drink, but derived from the Greek/Latin word for pearl and by extension bead. Those "stones" with intricate designs are most likely chevrons. The other beads are immediately identifiable with or without the musk scented cotton.

The long twisted beads are a type of "Nueva Cádiz beads" (see above). These have been (recently) so named because they were first excavated and described from the site of Nueva Cádiz, the first Spanish town in Venezuela (itself named after Venice by Columbus) on the island of Cubagua. Cubagua was a forbidding place.

The historian Antonio de Herrera described it, "this island has no water that could be drunk, nor trees, nor beasts; for all is brackish, except those hogs that have the navel in their backbone, and some small conies..." Conies are rabbits (Coney Island is named for them), but I cannot comment on hogs with belly buttons in their back bones.

If this place was so desolate, why in the world did the Spanish go there, 300 settling in 1520? The answer was that was in the middle of one of the world's richest pearl beds. The Spanish were content to have all their food and water brought over from the mainland as long as they could exploit this resource. As with all resources, it was eventually exhausted. So 23 years later, the island was abandoned.

What are chevrons and Nueva Cádiz beads like? Both are drawn, that is, made by cutting a section from a tube that had been stretched from a hot, hollow gather of glass. Both were made with several layers. Chevrons with successive star- or floral-shaped layers. When their ends were cut at an angle, chevrons are seen all around the edge. Nueva Cádiz beads have three layers and were square in shape. Some were left that shape: others were twisted.

The earliest chevrons usually have seven layers: translucent green, white, blue, white, red, white and blue. They were ground into facets on the ends to show their patterns. (There are exceptions; I have seen an 11-layer chevron.) This type was made for only about 130 years, roughly 1480 to 1610.

By 1600 there was a variety of chevrons, with different colors, reduced layers and ground round at the ends. The beads were made in Venice, though the grinding was done on the mainland.

The earliest Nueva Cádiz beads were mostly blue, with a deep blue core, a thin opaque white layer and a lighter blue outer layer (red ones show up in the northeast). They were usually long, though a shorter and smaller variety exists.

There has been a lot of discussion of where they were made. My money is on Venice. They show up in Fustat (Old Cairo), Madagascar and Jamestown, Virginia all suggesting a Venetian connection. They disappear about 1575 in Spanish America, but were still being used by the English at Jamestown in 1607 or later (see "Current Projects" Other Projects).

These two beads are markers of early Spanish penetration. One or both are found wherever the Spanish went exploring, conquering and destroying. The early chevron and Nueva Cádiz beads are in Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Florida, Texas and even across the world in the Philippines. As for the latter, when I pointed out to the National Museum people they had to revise their date of a large cemetery, which they thought had been closed before Spanish contact.


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