Strand of powder glass beads "Krobo"

95 €

Krobo people, Ghana, West Africa, mid.  20th century, private collection from Finland.

Trade beads are beads that were used as a medium of barter within and amongst communities. They are considered to be one of the earliest forms of trade between members of the human race. It has also been surmised that bead trading was one of the reasons why humans developed language. History of African Trade beads dates to the 15th century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of the West-Africa. The glass beads and other trade items were exchange for gold, ivory, palm oil and for slaves. At that time glass beads were major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. That’s why these glass beads are also called for ”slave beads”. The production of trade (slave) beads became so popular that literally tons of these beads were used to this purpose. Beads were used even as ballast in trade/slaveships for the outbound trip. Of all the beads being traded in Africa the Venetian beads made in Murano dominated the market. There were as many as 17 factories in Murano- exporting hundreds of tons of beads per year.

Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries beads became the currency of wealth, an important sign of status, and were literally a currency. People were buried with their beads- giving them the necessary trappings for safe passage in the next life. Africa wasn’t the only place where trade in glass beads flourished. Beads were traded with the native American peoples, in Nepal and as far afield as Papua New Guinea. The first record use of Trade Beads in America is that of Christopher Columbus. In February 2021, a new study published in the journal American Antiquity asserts that the glass objects are among the oldest European-made items ever discovered in North America. The discovery indicates the wide reach of 15th century trade networks. Venetian glass trade beads had been found at three prehistoric Eskimo sites in Alaska, including Punyik Point. The area was on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean and archaeologists estimated their arrival on the continent to sometime between 1440 and 1480, predating Christopher Columbus.

The beads proved to be a cheap and efficient trading currency, especially since there were already well-known glass bead making factories in Venice, Bohemia and the Netherlands, that just increased their production as a result of the growing African demand. The success of this form currency can largely be attributed to the high intrinsic value African people put upon decorative items. Glassmaking was not common in Africa. Africans used beads for currency, wealth storage and for the symbol of the social status. Although there was hundreds of glass bead designs, some of them were particularly popular. In West Africa millions of beads were traded with Africans for commodities and slaves. Certain beads were manufactured in Europe specifically for the African trade. Researchers travelled to Africa to establish what colour schemes and bead types would be favoured by a specific ethnic group. Millefiori trade beads, rosetta/ chevron, lewis & clark, vaseline, striped melon beads and eye beads were some of the more popular kinds. Padre beads were adopted by the pastoralist tribes of East Africa for their collars and were imported from Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Turkan people had used Ostrich shell beads as a currency for many years and so the change to brightly coloured glass beads was an easy transition to make. Trade beads were used as a currency until the end of the 19th century. After that they took on new roles within West African society primarily with respect to their aesthetic value. The quantitity, quality and the style of beads one possesses or wears shows one’s importance and wealth in Ghanaian and West African society. An inventory of antique beads is given only to someone who will appreciate this remarkable historical legacy and understands its value.

Powder glass beads are a type of necklace ornamentation. The earliest such beads were discovered during archaeological excavations at Mapungubwe in South Africa, and dated to between 970-1000 CE. Manufacturing of the powder glass beads is now concentrated in West Africa, particularly in the Ghana area. The origins of beadmaking in Ghana are unknown, but the great majority of powder glass beads produced today is made by Ashanti and Krobo craftsmen and women. Krobo bead making has been documented to date from as early as the 1920s but despite limited archaeological evidence, it is believed that Ghanaian powder glass bead making dates further back. Bead making in Ghana was first documented by John Barbot in 1746. Beads still play important roles in Krobo society, be it in rituals of birth, coming of age, marriage, or death.

Powder glass beads are made from finely ground glass, the main source being broken and unusable bottles and a great variety of other scrap glasses. In addition, glass bead fragments of varying sizes, which have traditionally been used for the manufacture as well as for the decoration of specific types of beads, can now be found in interesting new combinations, and during the past few years in particular, bead makers have taken this tradition yet another step forward by using entire, i.e. whole small beads for making their colourful bead creations. Krobo powder glass beads are made in vertical molds fashioned out of a special, locally dug clay. Most molds have a number of depressions, designed to hold one bead each, and each of these depressions, in turn, has a small central depression to hold the stem of a cassava leaf. The mold is filled with finely ground glass that can be built up in layers in order to form sequences and patterns of different shapes and colours. The technique could be described as being somewhat similar to creating a sand "painting" or to filling a bottle with different-coloured sands and is called the "vertical-mold dry powder glass technique". When cassava leaf stems are used, these will burn away during firing and leave the bead perforation. Firing takes place in clay kilns until the glass fuses. Older Ghanaian dry core powder glass beads, are the Akoso beads, which were also manufactured by the Krobo. The most common colour of Akoso beads is yellow. There are various types of powder glass beads, including such as Meteyi, Ateyun, Keta awuazi, and Kiffa.

Beautiful strand of fat hand-made glass beads from Ghana, West Africa. Irregular round, oval and barrel shapes. Traces of wearing and handling over many years. Gorgeous fused black/multicolor. Robust condition with some minor chips & digs. Strand c. 70,0cm with 40 unique beads (diameter c. 1,4cm - 2,1cm).

References, citations and sources:

A Brief History of Glass Beads in Africa, African Odyssey (https://www.africanodyssey.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-glass-beads-in-africa)

The BeadSite. (http://www.thebeadsite.com/welcome.html)

A Precolumbian Presence of Venetian Glass Trade Beads in Arctic Alaska, American Antiquity, Michael L. Kunz & Robin O. Mills, Cambridge University Press, 20 January 2021.

Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic, Robert K. Liu, Ornament, Inc., 1995.

African Odyssey, A Brief History of Glass Beads in Africa.(https://www.africanodyssey.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-glass-beads-in-africa)

Venetian Glass Beads May Be Oldest European Artifacts Found in North America, Nora McGreevy, Smithsonian Magazine, February 10, 2021. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tiny-blue-beads-european-artifact-north-america-old-180976966/)