beads01a
Tamasay Necklaces
1 of 30
beads01b
Tamasay Necklaces, detail
2 of 30
beads02a
Glass Trade Beads
3 of 30
beads02b
Glass Trade Beads, detail
4 of 30
beads03a
Ostrich Egg Shell Beads
5 of 30
beads03b
Ostrich Egg Shell, detail
6 of 30
beads04a
Bung or Lingling-o Necklace
7 of 30
beads04b
Bung or Lingling-o Necklace, detail
8 of 30
beads05a
"Jade" Necklace
9 of 30
beads05b
"Jade" Necklace, detail
10 of 30
beads06a
Turquoise and Heishi Shell Necklace
11 of 30
beads06b
Turquoise and Heishi Shell Necklace, detail
12 of 30
beads07a
Paper Ula
13 of 30
beads07b
Paper Ula
14 of 30
beads08a
Dentalium Shell Beads
15 of 30
beads08b
Olivella Shell Beads
16 of 30
beads09a
Trade Beads and Duiker Hooves Necklace
17 of 30
beads09b
Trade Beads and Duiker Hooves Necklace, detail
18 of 30
beads10a
Ivory Necklace
19 of 30
beads10b
Ivory Necklace, detail
20 of 30
beads11a
Ceramic Bead Necklace
21 of 30
beads11b
Ceramic Bead Necklace, detail
22 of 30
beads12a
Glass Beads and Teeth Necklace
23 of 30
beads12b
Glass Beads and Teeth Necklace, detail
24 of 30
beads13a
Mediterranean Beads
25 of 30
beads13b
Mediterranean Beads, detail
26 of 30
beads14a
String of Gastropod shells
27 of 30
beads14b
String of Gastropod shells, detail
28 of 30
beads15a
Seed and Shell Necklace
29 of 30
beads15b
Seed and Shell Necklace, detail
30 of 30

View the entire gallery or click on the above images to enlarge.

People have been collecting, stringing and sewing beads for more than 120,000 years. Some of the earliest beads, made of tiny seashells, were found in North Africa and the Middle East. As our ancestors spread around the world, they left a trail of beads behind them. People have been making and wearing beads ever since. Almost anything can become a bead; a shell, a stone, a seed.

Beads are beautiful, and their use reveals much about individual style and aesthetics. Their materials may document the physical environment, and their use in ritual, religion, power and politics reflects societal history, economy, and values. Whether Venetian glass beads in the Congo, Olmec jade, or Pacific coastal marine shells in archaeological sites of interior Oregon or Washington, it is clear that the value of beads was enhanced by the distance they traveled and the labor needed to extract their raw material, manufacture the ornaments, and move them to a consumer. Added value may accumulate through the passage of time, as beads and beadwork are handed down over generations as treasured heirlooms.

The beads shown here are a sample from the MNCH collections and illustrate a wealth of materials and types of beads from around the globe, ranging from pre-Columbian ceramics and jade to African ostrich shell beads. Photography by Chris White, text by Pam Endzweig, Beverly Fernandes, and Jon Erlandson, web development by Keith Hamm and Tyler Wooley. Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation and a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Further Reading:

Dubin, Lois Sher
2009       The History of Beads:  From 100,000 B.C. to the Present.  Revised and Expanded Edition.  Abrams, New York, N.Y.

Francis, Peter, Jr.
1994       Beads of the World.  Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Atglen, PA.

Crabtree, Carolyn and Pam Stallebrass
2002       Beadwork:  A World Guide.  Rizzoli International Publications, New York, N.Y.