It wasn’t literally the Holy Grail, but it was quite a find, the kind archaeologists must dream about. In 2008, in a 2,000-year-old tomb at Baga Gazaryn Chuluu in the Gobi Desert, Yale archaeologist William Honeychurch and colleagues from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences uncovered a mystery cache of beads. They weren’t the quartzlike Mongolian chalcedony beads or the traded Chinese or Korean glass beads researchers might expect to find in ancient Mongolia. They were glass—that much was clear—but their origin was unknown.

Mightier Than the Sword: The Allure, Beauty and Enduring Power of Beads, a permanent exhibit on the first and second floors of Yale’s Department of Anthropology building at 51 Hillhouse Avenue, tells what happened next: James Lankton, a visiting expert in ancient beads, saw the artifacts and recognized them as coming from Greek, Roman and Persian workshops, among others. Chemical analysis corroborated his observation. And thus, a gap in our knowledge of the famed Silk Road was closed.

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Visitors to the exhibit can see beads similar to those found at Baga Gazaryn Chuluu. These include an array of glass beads “embedded with thin gold foil,” using a process that remains enigmatic today. Also on view are four multicolored glass pendants with a “ribbon-mosaic” pattern, probably created by fusing together, then twisting, strips of colored glass, the exhibit says. Researchers also found Egyptian beads in the Mongolian tomb that were made not of glass but of faience, “a paste of crushed quartz, lime and plant ash that can be molded and then glazed to look like glass.” Intriguingly, these six tiny beads in shades of blue, green and yellow are fashioned to resemble clenched fists.

The story of the Gobi Desert beads is one of four included in Mightier Than the Sword, a six-panel project of the Yale Council on Archaeological Studies and the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The exhibit argues that “of the endless creations that define humanity’s ingenuity throughout time—from delicate song to the weaponry of war—it is the simple bead that, perhaps surprisingly, ranks among the most important.”

The most contemporary panel displays a single necklace strung by children during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), interspersing colorful plastic beads with bullet shells left behind on Beirut streets—jewelry “made for sale from whatever was readily available.” Beads made of other kinds of shells—both sea and egg—are the focus of two additional panels. One features beads made of ostrich egg shells thick enough to chip and carve into tiny round discs like pepper-speckled tokens of ivory. The Morombe Archaeological Project (MAP), directed by Yale’s Kristina Guild Douglass, was the first to document the use of eggshell beads off the coast of continental Africa, in Madagascar.

Beautiful coral-pink beads and shimmering amulets made from mother-of-pearl and the shells of spiny oysters are also on display, in a panel developed by Yale PhD Gabriel Prieto. Originating in Ecuador and Peru, some of these artifacts reach back to 4,000 BCE. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century diluted their symbolic value, but they became an emblem of peace in 1994 and ’95 following an armed conflict between neighbors Peru and Ecuador and continue to be worn as jewelry today.

The pièce de résistance for bead lovers, however, comes on the second floor, where one segment of a much larger 34-foot “Bead Timeline” is displayed. The spouses of US foreign servants are responsible for this collection, says anthropology professor Roderick McIntosh, who also curates the Peabody Museum’s anthropology collection. Unable to work in the embassies themselves, they began a tradition of bead collecting, amassing a vast repository of thousands of beads from around the world at the Bead Society of Greater Washington, which recently donated it to Yale.

Even in partial form, the timeline offers a visual feast of beads of nearly every imaginable shape and material: gilded and carved, shimmery and speckled, tubular and orbed, strung together by the dozens and standing alone, in turquoise, black, cobalt, amber, coral, gold, stone gray and transparent glass. When you’re done admiring their beauty, you can try to fathom their origins, the bulk of them from across Asia and North Africa dating back more than 3,000 years.

Mightier Than the Sword is a permanent installation. Visitors are bound to learn something new about these tiny but powerful relics of the past—and, inevitably, to leave with new questions. For one: What will researchers of the future make of our own beaded jewelry and rosaries and curtains circa 1971 CE?

Mightier than the Sword: The Allure, Beauty and Enduring Power of Beads
Yale Department of Anthropology – 51 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven
Mon-Thurs 10am-3pm (except holidays)
(203) 432-3701…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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