Middle Eastern Glass Beads:
A New Paradigm
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Rhodes is the easternmost island in the Aegean Sea. While it had many masters, it always tried to preserve its freedom. Alexander the Great conquered it in 332, but when he died nine years later, the Rhodians expelled the Macedonian soldiers. During the next several centuries it was the most wealthy and influential city in the Hellenistic world. Its form of coinage and maritime laws were adopted all around the Mediterranean. It was also (for only 56 years) the home of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the world (it did not straddle the harbor entrance).
In early 1967, Mr. G. Kakoulas, a resident of the city of Rhodes, began digging a foundation for a new building near the football stadium. He found more than just dirt. He uncovered the ruins of an ancient house, whose owner, a glassmaker, once decided to raise the floor in some rooms and the courtyard. To do so, he used all sorts of rubbish including scrap glass - broken pieces of vessels and some 10,000 beads.
When the news reached Gladys Davidson Weinburg, she must have smiled in satisfaction. Only a year before, poorly made vessels found in tombs and elsewhere on the island of Rhodes led her to write a paper suggesting that there had been glassmaking on the island.1 Because of her dual interest in glass and the Greek world,2 she was invited to catalogue the material.
It was exciting. Not only was this the remains of the only known glass factory of its age, it was also the only one (then) known to have made both beads and vessels. It was a wonderful collection and she had the cooperation of many people and institutions. For some reason, however, it was never published in full and has not received the attention it deserved.
Weinburg referred to the factory as "Hellenistic" in date.3 The dating was a little difficult, but the pottery found with the beads was from the third century B.C. and possibly early second century. The coins were third century or earlier, the most recent one associated with the beads was first minted in 166 B.C.
The word "Hellenistic" has several meanings. It is derived from Hellas (EllaV), the Greek name for Greece (after Hellas, son of Deucalion, the "Greek Noah"). It did not mean a specific geographic region, but any place where Greek-speaking people lived. Therefore, it came to indicate not only what we think of as Greece but all of its colonies as well. In modern parlance, it often means the Greek-speaking or even Greek-inspired world after the death of Alexander (323 BC). That is how Weinburg meant it, and that is how we are using it here.
So what kinds of beads were there? There were round beads, crumb, melon and eye beads. These were furnace wound and not too surprising when it comes to beads. But there were other beads that are were very unusual.
There were small (down to 2 mm in diameter), drawn, short cylinders, not much different from what we call seed beads. There were mosaic "bull's eye" canes used to decorate eye beads. There were mosaic beads. There were pendants shaped like human heads, dolphins, birds and vases and a host of other small glass objects (cosmetic rods, bangles, gaming pieces, etc.) as well as pieces of vessels.
There were also beads that have no known ancestors. Some are what we call segmented beads. These are made from glass tubes. The tubes were constricted along their lengths to make a series of bulges. Then the bulges are cut apart to form single or multiple segmented beads. Most of them were small monochromes.
One of the segmented bead types was more complex. It was made with two tubes of glass. The thinner one was covered with gold foil and slipped inside the wider one. Then this combination was formed into bulges and cut apart. The outer tube protected the gold and, being clear, allowed it to shine through. These are called gold-glass beads (about a half dozen other names have been proposed for them).
Then there were beads were made by heating a small plaque or piece of glass and bending it around a wire. The opposite ends were fused where they met. These we call folded beads. More precisely, they were single-strip folded beads, as they were made from a single piece of glass and have one seam.
Did all of these glass beads (and vessels, too) come from one factory, one house, one family? It seems that way. If so, we have a real genius here, someone who virtually invented a whole glass industry.
At least that is what it looks like at the moment. New discoveries are made and/or made known all the time, so things can change. The Greeks were fond of glass and had set up at least one factory on the northern shore of the Black Sea by the 5th or 6th century. I don't know anythingabout this factory4 and do not know whether it made beads.
Thea Elizabeth Haevernick (a member of the Bead Researchers' Hall of Fame) had proposed much the same thing in 1960 (cited in D.B. Harden 1969 "Ancient Glass, I: Pre-Roman" Archaeological Journal 125:46-72 in note 46, page 55), but Davidson Weinburg apparently did not know that.
For example, Gladys R. Davidson 1940 "A Mediaeval Glass-factory at Corinth" American Journal of Archaeology 44:297-324; Corinth, Volume XII: the Minor Objects AmericanSchool of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton, NJ. (Both written before she married the archaeologist Saul Weinburg).
Gl. Davidson Weinberg 1969 "Glass Manufacture in Hellenistic Rhodes" DELTIOU (Deltiou) 24:143-51, pls. 75-88.
I have not seen an original report on this/these factories. My sources are only secondary and very sketchy. They were excavated by the Russians and have not been published in the West.
Middle Eastern Glass Beads: A New Paradigm
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