History & Culture

The Great Bead Story: Beads are a fashion statement and a window to cultures

A beaded necklace from late Harappan context from the site of Harappa   | Photo Credit: HARP/NHK Catalogue

Beads are a fashion statement in today’s world. They are beautiful. And they can also tell us the story of a civilization. “The statue of the ‘Priest King’ from Mohenjo-daro is a remarkable discovery. The findings show that the headband depicted on the forehead of the Priest King consisted of a gold fillet with the centrepiece made up of a gold circlet and a steatite bead. The combination of all these elements clearly created an extraordinary, elite item” says Dr. V.N. Prabhakar, director (Exploration and Excavation, and Publication), Archaeological Survey of India. The archaeologist is guest professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. He has carried out investigations on the bead drilling technology of Dholavira Harappans, and conducted excavations at Harappan culture sites. In an interview with this writer he explains the significant role that beads play in revealing various aspects of the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization.

V.N. Prabhakar, director (Exploration and Excavation, and Publication), Archaeological Survey of India

V.N. Prabhakar, director (Exploration and Excavation, and Publication), Archaeological Survey of India   | Photo Credit:


What is the significance of beads in archaeological studies? How do you date the beads? What scientific methods are used?

Beads play an important role in helping us understand the cultures of the past — long-distance trade, technological features and parameters, provenance, artistic expression — and very important in archaeological studies, often from a period where no written evidence is available. Even during historical periods, beads were useful to help us understand archaeological cultures in terms of trade, technology and art.

In the earliest contexts of South Asia, beads were often very simple, and fashioned from animal bones or limestone. The production of various specimens of artistic expressions proliferated once humans started to settle down. The beads from the earliest levels were made of turquoise, shell, dentalium steatite, calcite and lapis lazuli.

Beads tell us about trade. The long barrel cylindrical beads and decorated carnelian beads found from several sites in Oman, Iraq and Syria (the last two corresponding to the areas of the Mesopotamian civilization) clearly indicate their export as elite items from the Harappan civilization.

Beads cannot be directly dated by scientific methods. The archaeological layers can be dated by scientific methods and if the beads and other artefacts are found in the same layer, they are placed in the same chronological horizon as that of the layers.

Statue of the ‘Priest King’ from Mohenjo-daro

Statue of the ‘Priest King’ from Mohenjo-daro   | Photo Credit: ASI

The archaeological finds of the Indus Valley civilization have thrown up rich and ample evidence of the use of beads in the daily life of the people. How much do they reveal about the economy, society, class, and the beliefs of the people?

The beads from the Harappan civilization — a better and most accepted terminology than the Indus Valley civilization — are of various materials such as terracotta, shell, steatite, agate-carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, faience, jasper, onyx, and others. Analysis reveals that 41 new raw materials were added during the urban phase of the Harappan civilization (2600-1900 BCE).

This is a clear indication of the economic prosperity boosted by the integration of various regional Chalcolithic cultures across the Greater Indus Plains. The integration of these regional Chalcolithic cultures also enabled the procurement of raw materials from distant locations.

Often the burials of Harappan sites clearly indicate the social stratification based on the artefacts, including beads of exotic raw materials, their number and rarity.

The burials also clearly indicate the context in which the strands of bead necklaces and other ornaments were used. Often the ornaments are placed in their original context of the body and buried. Similarly, terracotta male and female figurines clearly indicate the context in which the beaded necklaces were worn by them.

For example, the long barrel cylindrical beads were worn as girdles across the hip portion of females as the female terracotta figurines from sites like Mohenjo- daro show. The placing of agate and faience eye beads across the upper arm from child burials of Sanauli is another clear indication of their usage — may be to ward off evil elements.

Carnelian beads

Carnelian beads   | Photo Credit: ASI

Which natural materials found in the region led to the beautiful craft of bead making ? What type of material was preferred by different classes and professions? Did their use indicate a certain hierarchy and rank?

Past human cultures used various raw materials found from the natural context, for example, shell species of Turbinella pyrum from the Gulf of Kachchh, agate-carnelian from Khandak near the Harappan site of Surkotada and other locations in Gujarat, lapis lazuli from the Badakshan mines of Afghanistan, high quality steatite from northern Rajasthan, and turquoise from Central Asia.

It is very difficult to understand the types of raw materials used in the absence of written evidences and contextual records from the burials. However, even commonly available materials could be fashioned in such a manner as to create elite items.

What do these finely fashioned beads tell us about the technological advancement of the Indus Valley society?

The investigation of the bead holes clearly tells us the various technological stages in which they were manufactured. The study from the Neolithic stages of Mehergarh to the early Historic period clearly show the transformation in the technological stages (as they tell us about the type of drill bits used).

Further, the bead manufacturing technology, as evidenced from the bead manufacturers of Khambhat today in Gujarat, and their study by various scholars have enabled the various stages involved in their production to be understood. Traditional bead manufacturers use the same kind of bow drilling to perforate the beads, clearly a survival of the traditional processes. However, modern bead manufacturers now use mechanical polishing and drilling equipment, which enables faster manufacture. The beads in various stages of manufacture from several sites such as Harappa, Chanhudaro and Dholavira reveal the stages involved in the production of these beads.

Is there any other civilization comparable to the Indus Valley in producing and patronising bead making?

The contemporary Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations had similar industries. However, the Harappans were masters in the manufacture of agate-carnelian and other hard beads, with the aid of ernestite drill bits.

How is it that beads continue to make a fashion statement in today’s world?

The form, shape and raw materials have varied from period to period. Once the production of glass came into being, the domination of semi-precious stones declined and beads of glass in various shapes, size, and colours could be manufactured. However, the advent of precious gem stones such as diamond, opal, ruby, emerald, sapphire and others, during the historical period and their rarity, clarity, reflective and refractive properties enabled their dominance, establishing them as elite items. Beads continue to make a fashion statement due to their properties such as vibrant colours and polish and also the shapes in which they can be manufactured.

Can many of today’s beads compare with the beauty, uniqueness and ingenuity shown in the beads of Mohenjo-daro,Harappa, Dholavira and other cities?

The present-day raw materials, shapes and finish are very different from those found on Harappan sites. However, the technology has its origin from Harappan times, or even earlier. The traditional technology of the Harappan bead manufacture has survived even up to the 20th century and is still practised by a small group of master craftsmen. However, present-day synthetic materials and mechanised manufacturing techniques clearly dominate the products of traditional bead manufacturers. In terms of shapes, sizes and artistic quality, I would definitely place the Harappan beads well above the present ones, even though the [present ones] are made of precious gemstones, and have vibrant reflective and refractive qualities.

Is there any bead museum in the world and is there any proposal to set up one in Khambat or any centre of the Indus Valley?

At present, there is no separate bead museum to highlight the beads of the Harappans. However, a small museum in the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, M.S. University, Vadodara, preserves one of the extraordinary collections reflecting the entire bead manufacturing processes of the Harappans.

How did you get interested in this fascinating field of study? How much has this sphere of specialisation grown?

I was trained in Harappan archaeology at Dholavira under Dr. R.S. Bisht and since then I have developed a deep interest to study and understand various aspects of the Harappan civilization — their society and transformation from a regional culture to an urbanised civilization. My interest in bead studies is due to Prof. J.M. Kenoyer, under whose guidance I gained insights on the techniques to study the methodology, manufacturing processes and various other aspects. The study of beads has developed immensely due to the contribution of various scholars such as E. Mackay, S.R. Rao, G.L. Possehl, J.M. Kenoyer, M. Vidale and K. Bhan.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 8:42:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-great-bead-story/article29341513.ece

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