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Indo-Pacific Beads

Small, monochrome drawn (cut from a tube) beads are found at archaeological sites stretching from Ghana to China, Mali to Bali and South Africa to South Korea. There has been a lot of discussion about them and controversy over their name. I coined Indo-Pacific, and that name is now widely used. The details of this debate and the history of their discovery are in a box at the end of this article.

These beads were made by a unique method developed in South India several centuries B.C. It is still in use.

It requires a couple dozen men and women, three furnaces, two of them unique to the system, and specialized tools. Glassmakers prepare a large cake of glass by pouring molten glass onto a flat platform. The cakes are broken up and heated on a shelf adjacent to the unique tube-drawing furnace (below).

A sketch of the unique tube drawing furnace at Papanaidupet.

When the glass begins to melt it is taken up on two iron-clad sticks called geddaparu (Tamil for the stick used to stir mud in house-building) and kneaded into a viscous mass. Then it is transferred onto a long iron tube called the lada (e) and rolled along a short, low wall into a cone (f).

The men then pierce the cone by inserting a long iron rod (the chetleak) through the lada and banging against the base until it emerges through the apex. The hollow cone on the lada is then inserted into a high port of the furnace (b). On the opposite side, a master reaches in with an iron hook, grabs the tip of the cone and (usually after several tries) begins pulling the cone out into a tube. He walks back a few meters and pulls the tube out continually, breaking it into meter lengths as he goes (g).

Some 40 to 50 kgs (about 100 pounds) are worked at a time. The drawing takes about three hours; there are two masters on each team. The resulting tubes are chopped between two blades by other workers, then packed in ash and stirred over heat for 20 to 30 minutes to round off their sharp edges. They may then be sieved and finally strung up by women with 15 or so long needles, passing them through the beads held in a winnowing basket.

There are at least two intriguing unanswered questions about this technology. For one, the tube-drawing process is very similar in conception to the machine that Edward Danner of the Libby Glass Company patented in 1917 to draw glass tubing automatically. (It is still in operation in much of the world.) For another, the way the tubes are subsequently processed is exactly the way Venice processed tubes until the introduction of machines in the 1860s. There is no question that the Indians were doing this for two millennia or more before either Venice or Danner. Coincidences?

The waste products of this industry (rather than a large number of beads), particularly of the tube-drawing step, confirm that beadmaking was done at a particular site. Arikamedu continued to make these beads, but in the first century A.D. or so some of the beadmakers went elsewhere: Mantai, Sri Lanka; Khlong Thom (also called Kwan Lukpat, "Bead Hill"), Thailand and Oc-eo, Vietnam. Oc-eo and Khlong Thom were part of Funan, the first state in Southeast Asia. Their products seem to have enjoyed prestige. Indo-Pacific beads are found in royal or noble tombs in China (particularly not yet Sinicized regions such as Annam and Guangzhou), in royal tombs in Korea (at least in Silla and Paekche ones) and probably in Japan.

When Funan fell apart, the beadmakers apparently moved to its successor, Srivijaya. They worked at Kuala Selinsing and Sungai Mas, Malaysia and Takua Pa, Thailand as well as Srivijaya/Palembang itself. By the time the Sailendra dynasty fell and the capital was moved to Jambi, Indo-Pacific beadmaking had disappeared in Southeast Asia.

Most of these centers made their own glass. They did not recycle Western glass and do not seem to have had a central glassmaker distributing glass to each site. This I conclude from the analyses done by Ron Hancock of the University of Toronto for me.

Until the 11th century Indo-Pacific beads were ubiquitous. In the Philippines they account for 66.2% of all beads of all materials from all archaeological sites from roughly A.D. 1 to 1200. After that they virtually disappear (from 1200 to 1450 they account for only 1.2%). The same pattern is to be seen (though we don't have statistics) in Sarawak, Java and no doubt elsewhere.

Indo-Pacific beads also went west. Arab traders took them to trade into Africa; they are found all along the East Coast and Madagascar and down into the northern Forest Zone of West Africa. The Portuguese continued the pattern, at least in regard to Mozambique.

It is no exaggeration to say that Indo-Pacific beads were the greatest trade beads -- perhaps the greatest trade items -- of all time.

History of their Study and the name debate:

Ivor Evans saw evidence for their production at Kuala Selinsing, Malaysia in the 1920s. Horace C. Beck, recognized similar beads in several places, including Great Zimbabwe. Alastair Lamb suggested there might have been a nomadic group of Indian craftsmen making these beads in different places in Southeast Asia.

W.G.N. Van der Sleen included them in his "Trade Wind Beads" group as early as 1956. Although an evocative term, "Trade Wind Beads" was flawed, as he included all beads brought from Asia to East Africa. The small drawn beads were there, but so were unrelated types, including wound beads and stone beads

In 1965 Lamb published a paper describing "mutisalah" beads, in the journal Man as small opaque red (or orange) drawn beads that were heirlooms on Timor. He said that were all over Southeast Asia. Van der Sleen wrote a letter to Man saying that Lamb was wrong; "true" mutisalahs were wound beads heavy in lead. The problem was neither understood what a mutisalah was.

Both "Trade Wind Beads" and "Mutisalah" are common in the literature, the former especially in Africa and the latter in Southeast Asia. Since both are inappropriate I coined "Indo-Pacific beads" (a shorter form of my earlier IPMDGB -- Indo-Pacific Monochrome Drawn Glass Beads). The name reflects the region in which they were made. The term is increasingly in use.


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