The Archaeology of Experience – Making a Glass Bead Christmas Ornament

Pic: The glass beads that were used to make this Christmas ornament

In my research into the blown-glass beads I found in BC, I discovered that this style of glass bead was quite popular for use in Christmas ornaments.  Sometimes the beads would be strung as garland, other times they would be strung into shapes (i.e. stars, Christmas trees, etc.).  I also discovered a website from which I can order blown-glass beads made in the Czech Republic in vintage molds, either as individual beads or in kits for making ornaments.  Here was a fantastic opportunity for me to experience these glass beads in a whole new light.  They weren’t going to be beads that had been dug out of the ground as a material memory of something from long ago.  They were going to be brand new beads with a story yet to be told.  And by making the ornament, I was the one who would get to decide the story of these beads.  Just like whoever had handled the beads from Garden Bay had done over 100 years earlier.  Although they were probably dressed a little nicer than sweatpants, and likely not sitting on a couch.  Excitedly, I ordered a couple of kits and off I went on my experiment into the archaeology of experience.

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The ornament kit included: instructions (printed in Czech, but luckily full of easy-to-follow diagrams), 6 large (Kidd and Kidd 1970) gold mold-blown glass beads, 12 small silver 5-bead chains, 1 small amber wire-wound bead, and wire to string it all together with.  Even the colours were authentic to my research.  Not only have I found out that gold and silver glass beads were used almost exclusively for export, but around 80% of the intact beads I recovered from Garden Bay were gold and silver.

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Following the illustrated directions, I found it was actually very tedious stringing the beads together.  I had to be careful that the gold and silver exterior paint wasn’t flaking off and that I didn’t hold the beads so tightly that the broke.  Like the beads from Garden Bay, the glass was extremely thin and super fragile.  Unlike the beads from Garden Bay, the gold and silver paint was on the exterior of the bead (I couldn’t tell if it was also coating the inside).  The Garden Bay beads only had interior paint.  Though, I suppose, that’s not to say that they didn’t at one time have exterior paint.  Maybe they did and it was lost through taphonomic processes.  These new beads had given me something new to consider about the Garden Bay beads.

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Did the original ornament-makers and bead-workers have to deal with pesky cats trying to “help” keep the wire in place?

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When I was finished I strung the ornament off our very festive moss cane and took a look.  The whole process took about 15 minutes to create a palm-sized star ornament.  Based on the fact that the Garden Bay beads were all separate (no chains), I’m more inclined to believe that if they were part of a Christmas decoration they may have been part of a string of garland.  Alternatively, they might have also been part of a jewelry piece, like a necklace, if they weren’t part of a Christmas ornament.  Regardless, this little experiment certainly gave me a bit of extra insight into the lives of blown-glass beads, and what the beads from Garden Bay might have been like in their original state, and made me feel a little more connected to my work.  Work I’ve got planned for this June/July should hopefully help shine some more light onto the beads and their context in the ground, and maybe let us know a little more about the life of the woman they were buried with.

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