Mudlarking: Colorful Glass Beads

By Jason Sandy

colorful glass beads from the Thames

Colorful glass beads, Florrie Evans

Full of mystery and beauty, beads embody history and humanity. These tiny objects reveal intriguing stories of social and economic circumstances, popular fashions, political history, and religious beliefs. Beads have always been popular in almost every culture around the world. In ancient grave sites, the deceased were often buried with their beads, demonstrating the religious importance and cultural symbolism of beads. When Christopher Columbus first landed in America in 1492, he gave the Arawak Indians strings of colorful, glass beads to impress them and win their friendship. In the 17th and 18th centuries, beads were a valuable “currency,” which Europeans produced and exchanged for furs in North America, spices in the Far East, and gold, ivory, and slaves in Africa. Even today, colorful beads can be found in many types of fashion accessories around the world.

Over the past four decades, mudlarks have discovered thousands of beads in the River Thames in London. Ranging from the Iron Age to Modern times, these beads are a tangible connection to Londoners who wore them around their necks and wrists as status symbols and colorful, fashionable accessories to complement their attire and enhance their beauty. 

historical london beads

Celtic blue and white glass bead, Nick Stevens. Roman orange glass bead, Jason Sandy. Above right: Roman glass beads, Florrie Evans.

A few years ago, mudlark John Higginbotham discovered a large, translucent blue Celtic bead from 800 to 100 BC. Decorated with white spirals on raised protrusions, it is considered to be an ancient “eye bead” with amuletic properties. Out of approximately 50 known examples of the Oldbury Type 1407 beads, this is the only one to have been found attached to a metal ring, making this a very unique find. In sunlight, the large bead comes alive and glows as the light passes through the ancient glass. Celtic craftsmen were highly skilled in making beautiful necklaces made of glass beads. These would have been worn as an impressive symbol of status and power.

In AD 43, the Romans arrived in Britain and successfully established a settlement called Londinium along the River Thames. Londinium thrived for nearly 400 years before the Romans abandoned the city around AD 426. Although the Romans left around 1,600 years ago, mudlarks still find traces of Roman life along the River Thames. Florrie Evans has discovered several glass beads, which would have adorned an elegant Roman woman’s neck or wrist. These colorful glass beads were made in different shapes and sizes. They now have a frosty appearance after a thousand years rolling around at the bottom of the river.

As I was mudlarking along the Thames in Central London, I discovered a Roman bead made from orange glass. The Museum of London has dated it to AD 50–410, and it is in perfect condition. The bead is slightly sub-spherical and is decorated with a central band running around the circumference with undulating ridges above and below. It was probably part of a necklace comprised of many similar beads. 

antique beads

Roman glass melon bead, Jason Sandy. Roman glass melon bead, Hannah Smiles.

The Romans also loved wearing necklaces with large glass beads. They were experts in glassmaking and produced beautiful glass “melon” beads, which have convex ribs around the circumference to catch the light. A few years ago, I found a large Roman melon bead. According to the Museum of London, it is from AD 43–300. The bead now has a frosted greenish-grey color, but it would likely have been a transparent bluish-green glass bead when originally made.

In 2018, two mudlarks coincidentally discovered two halves of the same Roman bead at different times. Guy Phillips explains, “While searching the foreshore, I spotted the fragment of a Roman melon bead. Picking it up, its shape and muted, yellow color immediately reminded me of an Instagram post from Florrie a few months earlier.” At a mudlarking exhibition in 2019, Guy and Florrie brought the bead pieces together “to discover whether the two halves were indeed from the same bead. Remarkably they were…what an extraordinary reunion! The iridescent color on the break line may indicate that the two halves were separated for a considerable period of time, making their coupling all the more improbable!” It is truly a miracle that the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman bead is now complete again. 

medieval and roman beads thames

Medieval and post-medieval carved bone beads, Oliver Clark. Lead seal from the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, Tom Bland. Colorful trade beads, Oliver Clark.

Medieval beads are a rare find from the River Thames, but mudlark Oli Clark has found a few unusual beads made of bone which have been dated to the late medieval or early post-medieval period. One of them is a spherical bone bead decorated with a cross hatch pattern of incised lines. The other bead is a beautiful work of art. A piece of bone has been hand-carved and faceted into a square, truncated trapezohedron shape with raised circles.

In the 17th century, Britain began trading with West African tribes and transporting slaves to the Caribbean and American colonies as part of the “triangular trade.” Mudlarks Tom Bland and Malcolm Duff have both found lead seals dated to 1660-1675 from the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. Flanked by two native Africans, an elephant is shown below a castle and arms of England. Founded by the British royal family and wealthy London merchants, the Royal African Company was granted a monopoly over the English slave trade in 1660. As part of the slave trade, European glassmakers mass-produced huge quantities of glass beads, which were used as a valuable commodity and “currency” for buying slaves in West Africa who were then transported to the New World and traded for sugar, tobacco, rum, and cotton, which were taken back to Europe.

Mudlark Oli Clark has found a wide variety of colorful, glass trade beads on the Thames foreshore. According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, “These beads are known as trade, aggry, or slave beads. They formed an important element in early trade networks between Europe and Africa. At that time, glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for people and products. The beads proved to be a cheap and efficient means of exploiting African resources, especially as glassmaking technologies developed in Europe.” It’s hard to believe that these stunning, seemingly innocent glass beads were used for such a horrible, evil, and inhumane purpose.

colorful trade beads

Venetian glass chevron bead, Oliver Clark. 17th-century Dutch glass trade bead, Fran Sibthorpe. Venetian Millefiori beads, Florrie Evans.

One of the nicest trade beads which Oli has found is a chevron bead produced by Venetian glassmakers in Murano, Italy, between 1500 and the early 1600s. It was formed by forcing or blowing molten glass into a mold with striated edges which created the ridges on the outer surface. Additional layers of alternating blue, white and red glass were added before it was quickly drawn into a six-foot-long cane. It was then cooled, cut into short pieces, and chamfered at both ends to create a unique, star-shaped pattern. 

A few years ago, mudlark Fran Sibthorpe and I discovered two glass trade beads which are almost identical, although we found them in two different areas along the river in London. Fran was born and raised in Britain, but she is of African Caribbean descent from Trinidad in the West Indies. Her ancestors were slaves transported from West Africa to the Caribbean. Therefore, Fran has a special connection to this trade bead. “I found this large 17th century Dutch chevron bead partially submerged in the Thames foreshore ‘gloop’ just waiting for me as I was about to leave the foreshore,” explains Fran. “When I picked up this bead, it immediately triggered my senses and emotions as I knew what it represented. Momentarily, I just looked at it with poignant, wide eyes and was immediately transported to my ancestors—it evoked my heritage. Sadly, I knew that this particular trade bead had been part of the slave trade. The association with colonialism (red, white and blue colors) took this find to another dimension. I wondered who had handled this trade bead, from manufacturer to its arrival on the foreshore. A testimonial find never to be forgotten.”

Along with other trade beads, Florrie has found two extraordinary “Millefiori“ beads from around the 18th century. The name originates from the Italian words “mille” (thousand) and “fiori” (flowers) which describes a glassmaking technique most frequently associated with Venetian glassware.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, colorful beads in necklaces, bracelets, rosaries, and other accessories continued to be a popular. One of the largest assemblages of Victorian and 20th-century beads from the River Thames was passionately collected by a mudlark named Denver. As Florrie was mudlarking with her daughter along the Thames Estuary in 2017, they met Denver for the first time on a bright spring day. Florrie describes Denver as a “big, burly man, ginger, topless, sweating and burnt in the sunshine. He’d been collecting beads and gave my thrilled daughter his pocketful. Seeing her excitement, he offered on the spot to send her his ‘life’s collection,’ if we gave him our address. I was a bit embarrassed and overwhelmed by this spontaneous act of kindness. 

beach found bead collection

Bead collection from Mudlark Denver, Florrie Evans.

I didn’t expect anything further from the encounter, but my daughter clearly hadn’t forgotten his promise. When the postman delivered a compact, heavy package a few months later, she immediately said ‘it’s from Denver the Bead Man’. She was right!” Florrie and Cecilia were delighted when they opened the package and discovered a “joyous riot of rainbow beads from the Thames estuary which were a special gift to my daughter, who was aged three. If beads could talk, these little beauties would have a cacophony of stories to tell,” explains Florrie. One of Florrie’s most special beads is an early 20th-century Czech bead made from clear yellow glass with an intricate applied glass rose.  

memento mori and floral thames river beads

Skull shaped “memento mori” bead, Jason Sandy. Handmade beads from Tibet or Nepal, Jason Sandy. 20th-century Czech bead with rose, Florrie Evans.

In one location along the River Thames, I have found two turquoise-colored beads in the shape of a skull. They are “memento mori” beads, which serve as a reminder of death and one’s mortality. Although these beads are modern, memento mori beads have been produced for many centuries.

As I was mudlarking on a sunny morning, I spotted two colorful beads nestled together on the exposed riverbed. The surface of the beads is decorated with turquoise and coral, inlaid between brass wire. The handmade beads were produced in the mountains of Tibet or Nepal. It is believed that the color combination of orange and turquoise can release the healing energies of passion, creativity, and peace.

Beads are still an important part of society today. Walk into any department store, and you will find beaded necklaces, bracelets, and many more fashion accessories. Rosary beads and prayer beads are still used by devout Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists during their daily prayer rituals. During Mardi Gras in New Orleans, necklaces made of colorful plastic beads are thrown and used as a “currency” during the festivities. Regardless of their use, beads are captivatingly beautiful pieces of history.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2020 issue.

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