Quantum Leap #3: Using Spacer Plates to Connect Parallel Strands of Beads
Time: Late Badarian Period (ca. 4000 BCE).
Around 4000 BCE, an artisan threaded nine strands of glazed steatite beads, grouped in threes, through three-hole bone spacer plates, thereby creating a beaded girdle, a typical male ornament at that time (see Carol Andrews, Ancient Egyptian Jewelry, Fig. 37).
While this may not seem like much of a leap, it reflects what would seem to be a significant realization: that connections can be made through beads alone, that is, if one thinks of a spacer plate as a kind of bead. (Of course, it's possible that this realization was given material form thousands of years earlier - in the shell bead cap found at Arene Candide, discussed in Quantum Leap #2. But we do not know how the shells were connected.)
In my opinion, this realization liberated beadwork to become an art form of its own, distinct from any other textile art form, for the simple reason that beads afford connections - and facilitate the construction of structures - that cannot be made without beads. Bead holes allow threads to pivot in various directions. The larger the holes, the greater the number of potential pivots. As we will see in future posts, pivots make it possible to render in beads highly complex 3-dimensional structures.
Thanks to this realization - that beads can be connected to other beads through their holes - there is no longer a one-to-one correspondence between textile and beadwork techniques. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, a new nomenclature is called for, one that brings together terms from at least two fields: the textile arts and mathematics. As yet, such a nomenclature and a corresponding beadwork-specific classification system have yet to be developed.
I believe that the use of spacer plates in the girdle above anticipates the development of netting techniques such as ladder stitch, peyote stitch and diamond net stitch, which begin to appear in the Egyptian archaeological record by about 2500 BCE.
Without this realization, other quantum leaps could not have occurred. Mainland Chinese beadworkers could not have invented bead polyhedra by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or earlier. The work of visionary 21st century American artists Joyce Scott and David Chatt would be inconceivable. All of these later leaps involve connections made largely or wholly through beads to create 3-dimensional structures that would be difficult if not impossible to render with threads alone.
Below, two well-known examples of ancient Egyptian spacer plate bracelets - the height of luxury in their day, as they would be in ours.
Spacer plate structures were also used to form the jewelry of Puabi of Ur in modern-day Iraq. Puabi is thought to have lived ca. 2550-2450 BCE. Below, a reconstruction of her spectacular ornaments.
(The text above is copyright Valerie Hector 2015. All rights reserved.)