Recently I began wondering how many quantum leaps had occurred in the history of beadwork. I mean the kind of beadwork that makes use of thread as opposed to a matrix such as glue or wax. This kind of beadwork is rooted in the textile arts. However, this kind of beadwork can also be understood as a mathematical practice.
A quantum leap is a radical conceptual or methodological innovation that changes a field forever, thereby facilitating further innovations.
As the posts that follow will suggest, the oldest quantum leap in beadwork may date to ca. 30,000 BCE. The most recent is probably 10-15 years old. A new leap might be underway as I write, initiated perhaps by a scientist rendering viruses in beads – or an astrophysicist rendering aspects of the cosmos – or the girl or boy next door, fueled by a fascination for what beads can do.
I don't want to suggest that these quantum leaps follow a simple evolutionary sequence; it's not that systematic. There are fits and starts and periods of quiescence, followed by periods of rediscovery or renaissance. Yet there is an overall progression from simplicity to complexity.
Initially I thought my list would contain eight or ten entries. But it kept growing. At the same time I kept revising – and expect to continue revising for some time to come.
The entries I'll be publishing in the posts that follow reflect my opinion (which is subject to change) and the state of my knowledge (which is subject to expansion).
Most of the entries concern advances in technique. Two concern advances in content. As of mid-May, 2015, the list contains about 18 entries. I’ll be posting them one at a time. I will not be taking into consideration quantum leaps in allied fields such as needle, thread- and bead-production.
The point of such a list is simple: it builds for beadwork a history of its own, distinct from the history of beads, textiles or mathematical structures. We need to know where the field has been, so we can get a sense of where it might be going – and of how our own efforts figure into the mix, not to mention the efforts of our contemporaries.
I welcome your input and will amend the entries if needed, including your name as a contributor if you wish.
This post is Copyright Valerie Hector 2015. All rights reserved.
Now, to the first quantum leap – stitching beads, individually or collectively, to a ground made of animal or vegetal materials.
Quantum Leap #1 (Speculative): The Earliest Bead Embroidery
Time: Upper Paleolithic Era, Aurignacian Culture, ca. 32,000-29,000 BCE (?)
Place: Abri Castanet rock shelter, Dordogne region, southwest France (?)
Bead embroidery is a basic, no doubt early form of beadwork. But what remains of ancient examples? Only scattered beads. This is because ancient threads made of animal sinew or vegetable fiber disintegrate over time, leaving archaeologists to reconstruct what a piece might have looked like.
From roughly 40,000 to roughly 25,000 BCE, the Aurignacian culture flourished in Europe, southwest Siberia, Central Asia and the Levant. Thought to be anatomically modern humans, Aurignacians produced the first known figurative art by painting the walls of the caves they lived in and fashioning small but sophisticated sculptures.
Aurignacians also made beads of mammoth ivory, shell, and other materials. Scholars believe that the marine shell beads found scattered at Aurignacian sites such as Abri Castanet in modern-day France may have been sewn to garments made of animal hides or other materials.
Archaeologist Randall White has conducted extensive excavations at Abri Castanet. White believes that beads and other personal ornaments served to convey or construct human social identities within and between groups, communicating gender, age, status and wealth. For more information, read White's 1995 paper "Ivory personal ornaments of Aurignacian Age: technological, social and symbolic perspectives" or visit this page in Archaeology magazine.
Further tentative evidence of ancient bead embroidery was found at the site of Sungir near present-day Moscow, where some 13,000 mammoth ivory beads surfaced in the burials of an adult male about 60 years old, and two children buried head-to-head.
The shaping, piercing and coloring of the Sungir beads is estimated to have consumed about three years’ worth of labor. Such a display of wealth suggests that the occupants of the graves, buried some 26,000 – 28,000 BCE, were of high social status.
Archaeologists believe these beads were stitched, either individually or in long strands, to animal hide garments worn by the occupants of the graves. Needles would have made the task easier. Although it does not appear that needles were recovered from Abri Castanet, bone needles have apparently been found at Aurignacian sites dating to ca. 40,000 BCE.
The first fully intact evidence of bead embroidery probably dates to 3000 BCE, when someone stitched small hollow seeds to a piece of woven linen, possibly in geometric patterns. A tiny fragment of this bead-embroidered linen fabric was recovered intact from a Neolithic archaeological site in the lakeside town of Murten, just west of Bern in Switzerland (see E. J. W Barber, Prehistoric Textiles, Fig. 4.20 and pp. 140-1).
In conclusion, while we are justified in assuming that bead embroidery was being practiced by about 30,000 BCE, we should stay open to the possibility that it originated earlier. After all, the earliest extant beads date to about 108,000 BCE. Made of three kinds of marine shell, probably pierced not by human hands but by natural processes, the beads were discovered at Skhul Cave on Mount Carmel, Israel. (See Lois Sherr Dubin, The History of Beads from 100,000 BC to the Present, 2nd Revised Edition, p. 19). Needles were not necessarily required in order to stitch beads to animal hides; all it takes is a sharp tool to pierce the hide, creating small holes for the insertion of sinew or vegetable-fiber.
(The text above is copyright Valerie Hector 2015. All rights reserved.)