Using Bead Archaeology to Discover Information about Regions of the World

Figure 1: a bead from the Neolithic Era

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “Typology is a classification according to general type.” Typology can range from the mapping of unknown gravestones in cemeteries to even objects themselves. Beads can be found in many different sections of the world from all different time periods dating back to 3800 BC. In looking at the physicality of a bead, archaeologists gain a deeper understanding of the technology used to produce the bead as well as the time period that the bead was crafted in. By mapping different types of beads by date, material, and shape, archaeologists are able to determine the types of societies in a specific region and the technology that they had access to/developed. 

Horace Beck was one of the first archaeologists to attempt a study of beads in 1928. He categorized different materials and sizes of beads, which led to an increased interest in the archaeological study of beads . Before Beck, beads were often viewed as smaller objects and their meaning was largely unknown. They were often lost due to insufficient recovery techniques.

In a study done 30 years ago in the Levant, Daniella E Bar-Yosef Mayer studied beads and categorized them by shape, region, age, and material. She visited twenty-two archaeological sites in an effort to work towards a typology of beads from in and around the Neolithic Period. The conclusions drawn from this study include findings such as how characteristics of the beads display aspects of chronology within societies, how societies can be dated due to the type of bead, and how certain groups were trading their resources with other groups. She is continuing to work on her typology of beads today in different areas of the world.

Figure 2: the beginning of a typology of Neolithic beads in the Levant

The beads found throughout the Levant display a wide range of time periods. As time periods changed, so did the type of beads and the technological features that were used to create them. Bar-Yosef Mayer writes in PLos journal, “We conclude that between 160 ka BP and 140 ka BP there was a shift from collecting complete valves to perforated shells” (Bar-Yosef Mayer 2022). Not only does this mean that new technology was being developed, but also, people were developing new ways to display and exchange beads. As soon as perforated shells were introduced, the beads could now be worn on a string. The transition from carrying beads to a form of human adornment with “jewelry” shows a change in time period and another way for beads to move larger distances.  

As more typologies of beads are created, more information about the connections of certain societies can be drawn. For instance, if one bead is found in one region but the same bead is found 100 miles away, it can be inferred that those societies are interconnected. The mapping of beads on different archaeological sites throughout the world has led to a better understanding of the connections between groups of people throughout the world, human necessity for self adornment, and the understanding of past behavioral patterns.


Beck, Horace

1928  Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants. Journal


E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  February 24, 2014  Towards a Typology of Stone Beads in the Neolithic Levant.

    Journal of Field Archaeology(2):129-142

E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  2017  In Not Just for Show, edited by Daniella Bar- Yosef Mayer, pp. 69-81. Oxbow

    Books, Oxford.

E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  July 8, 2020  On Holes and String. PLoS ONE journal 15(7):abstract


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2 thoughts on “Using Bead Archaeology to Discover Information about Regions of the World

  1. Typologies allow us to see changes in time as well as space because they display groups of specific types of things. For example, within the post, the typology of beads are displayed. Looking at how the beads within a typology change as time goes on allows us to see a change in the time when we find different beads. We can see how spaces change by looking at how trade moved beads that originated in one region and how they expand over time.

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