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Middle Eastern Glass Beads:

A New Paradigm

Part 2


As spoken of here, glass is a synthetic (humanly made) material. It is one of the earliest such substances. Technically it not a substance, but a state of matter.1 There have been suggestions that it was invented in various places,2 but the consensus is that it was first made in the Middle East, specifically Mesopotamia (the land between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates; modern Iraq) around 2500 BC.

For the first millennium of its use, by far the most common products made from glass were beads; there weren't even glass vessels. Because it was a novelty, made by a secret process and was attractive, glass was viewed as a gem or gem substitute and the many uses we have for it today were not even thought of in its early history.

By 1500 BC or so, glass beadmaking had reached a level of great sophistication. The beads and other glass objects from Nuzi in Mesopotamia3 were decorated by many means and virtually the whole repertoire of glass ornamentation had been developed. The beads from Nuzi are deposited in the Semitic Museum at Harvard. Most of the glass ones are heavily weathered, and I am not sure that all of the beadmaking processes (particularly folding) were employed as some (especially Vandiver) have claimed. Glass working had become so refined by that time that even a crude mosaic technique was being used, though not yet for beads.4

Beadmaking spread from Mesopotamia to neighboring regions, especially the Levant (Syria, Israel, Lebanon) and by 1000 B.C. to Europe.5 The beads made by these industries were all produced by the ancient method of furnace-winding. This technique persisted in Europe until the last few centuries and was also common in the Middle East

But the problem is that there were also many other ways of making glass beads. These other techniques were clearly important at various times and places. But they have been almost impossible to trace because none of them are being used today. The MEG-Project described in the last installment did not answer the questions of who made what sorts of beads where and when.

The new paradigm answers those questions. Before going into its details (I know, I know, hurry up with the good parts) let me say a few words about how it evolved. The short answer is: "I don't really know." The history of ideas is replete with similar events.

I developed the new paradigm while in India earlier this year. I had been invited to give a lecture soon upon my return and decided that it would be interesting for the group I was addressing to review the known history of glass beadmaking in Europe and the Middle East. As I do for all lectures, I began to practice it out loud when no one else was around to listen. I didn't need slides because I knew what slides I had. I didn't have my library or study collection with me, but most of the information was stored in my head anyway,

A lot was in my head on this topic. Not only the MEG-Project, but also the beads at Berenike, Egypt. I had catalogued these and made some remarks to the excavators about them at the time, but really couldn't contemplate them very well. This is because, as those who received African Diary and now get bEad-Mail know, I was sick. I was ill for months and by the time I began to recover Berenike was retreating from immediate attention.

And then it came to me in India. Not exactly from nowhere, as I had been working and thinking about the MEG-Problem/Project for years. But now suddenly it all fell into place. It all made sense of the data. There are no doubt corrections to be made in future with the MEG-Paradigm, but upon returning home, I found that the data confirmed what I had developed.

The scientific method involves the collection of data (the MEG-Project), the forming of hypotheses from the data, the testing of the hypotheses and the refinement of them until a theory is reached. Much of this work is dull and laborious. The mysterious part is how the undifferentiated data is developed into a workable hypothesis. I am not sure how it happens, but this is a good example that it does happen.

Part 3

Peter Francis, Jr. 1998 "Glass and Glass Analysis" Margaretologist 11(1):3-8.

For example, John E. Dayton 1993 The Discovery of Glass American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 41, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard.

Richard F.S. Starr 1939 Nuzi, Harvard University Press, Cambridge; Thea Elizabeth Haevernick 1965 "Nuzi-Perlen: Ein Versuch" Jahrbuch des Romisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums Mainz 12:35-40; Pamela Vandiver 1983 "Glass Technology at the Mid-Second-Millennium B.C. Hurrian Site of Nuzi" Journal of Glass Studies 25:239-247.

Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri 1981 "Economy and Society in Italy Between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age", pp. 138-155 in Graeme Barker and Richard Hodges, eds. Archaeology and Italian Society: Prehistoric, Roman and Medieval Studies Papers in Italian Archaeology II, BAR International Series 102.

D.B. Harden 1967 "Some Aspects of Pre-Roman Mosaic Glass" Annales du IVeme Congrés Journée Internationale pour l'Historie du Verre: 29-38.

Middle Eastern Glass Beads: A New Paradigm

 is copyrighted © 1999 Peter Francis, Jr. Permission is hereby given to download a single copy either electronically or in print. Permission for multiple copies should be sought from the publisher here.

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