From the History of Central Asian Beads

4 edition • 1916

Beads are among the most ancient types of adornments. The earliest pieces were made of shells, animal teeth and tusks. Plenty of beads in ancient and medieval burial grounds in Central Asia gave the opportunity to resume that beads were very popular among its inhabitants. The beads decorated hair, headwear, frontlets, collars, sleeves and shoes. They were used for necklaces, pendants for earrings, leg and arm bracelets. Besides that, beads were a symbol of wealth, health and served a piece of exchange revealing contacts with far regions, and at last, they were connected with ideas on magic and protective power.

Beads not just specify a fashion of epoch, but extend our knowledge on casting and forging (metal beads), stone making, glass making and bone carving crafts. The earliest adornments of beads in Central Asia were found in burial grounds of the Low Neolithic Period. One or two strands decorated a neck. It was thought that beads should protect entry holes in the clothes as they allegedly repel adversity, protect health and attract luck. Thus, wide known burial of a woman in Sarazm (the 3rd millennia B.C.) has kept samples of adornments: high tiara-shaped headwear beaded, plait adornment with gold beads and hairpins. The woman wore waistcloth with a purse where seams along legs and at joints were beaded. They also decorated a high edge of pants or belt (dress or skirt) .” (1, p.31). (According to data of coroplastics of southern Turkmenistan and Syntszyan finds).

In the antique period, the clothing was decorated with beads, pendants and plaques in the richer way. A bright example – excavations of the Soviet-Afghan expedition at Tilya-tepa settlement (“Golden Hill”), a monument of Southern Bactria (the I c. B.C.). In the burial grounds were revealed a burial cover and clothes with beads on golden strands. There were also bracelets from beads with amulets.

Sleeves of clothes were beaded and pearled. “Long sleeves had wristlebands with golden plaques, pearls, round bone and paste beads forming complicated patterns.” (2, p.126). Original gold necklace from Tillay-tepa made of 10 big gold beads proves that the grave belongs to a noble person from a royal family. All beads are empty inside and have oval form. Each of them is a real masterpiece. A bead is divided by fine “seeds” into sections where pentapetalous rosettes are. All beads are encrusted with turquoise. The clasp of the necklace was formed with two conical details decorated with small hearts from turquoise within a contour of “seeds”.

Necklaces of stone beads were used as a medicine (3). Agate beads symbolized a good health and sanity up to old years. Cornelian, so popular in the East, was applied for medicine purposes as a powder and a mistura. They believed that necklace of cornelian on a neck allays strong anger and medicines heart diseases, and in combination with pearl makes teeth stronger and stops gums bleeding. Turquoise was deemed a reliable talisman against bruises and fractures, and the main thing, it medicines eye diseases. Gagate, boiled in wine with wax, allegedly was good for scrofula. Absentminded, forgetful and hysterical people were recommended to wear emerald on a neck. Coral beads protected from paralysis and provided success in love matters. Amulet of bloodstone stopped nose and any other bleedings as it was deemed that this stone was being formed of blood flowed out, etc.

Coins also found their place in necklaces. In Central Asia, the first ancient coins with a hole in the middle were revealed in Surkhandarya region at the settlement of Kampir-tepa: this is halk of Demetrius (200 – 185 B.C.), Antiochus (280 – 261 B.C.), coins of the Seleucids, Soter Megas. In Kunya Uaz (Khorezm, the III – early IV cc.) were also revealed the Sassanian drachmas with holes for amulets. Coins in necklace had a protective function. Inscriptions on coins also allegedly had a mysterious force (for example: of Divine King Antiochus 185 – 170 B.C., of King Great Eucratides 145 – 140 B.C.). Animals on coins (eagle, horse, goat, bull, ram and others), fantastic or real, also protected their owner from various disasters. Patronizing gods and kings on numismatic subjects also played protective role.

Big bright glass beads, especially oculated, were used as apotropaic charms. In Khalchayan murals (Northern Bactria) we can see a male personage with a earring from six oculated beads in the lobe. “Pendants for “whammy” made of beads with oculated pattern, “kuz munchoq”, were fastened to child’s clothes and headwear, or otherwise, on a hand as a bracelet. So a magic and protective function of the young man’s earring at Khalchayan has been clear…” (4, p.21). Cowries played the same function of protection. Any adornment of shells attracted attention of ancient people by unusual form, beauty and gloss. Cowries were especially estimated in India and deemed a strong apotropaic charm. In Central Asia the most ancient headwear with shells was found in the Mesolithic burial grounds dated from the 10 – 5th millennia B.C. The cowries were found at the excavation rather often. In Central Asia they were expensive as they were exported from afar. S. Tolstov marked finds of cowries, not typical for the Aral sea, in the Neolithic layers of Khorezm. The study revealed that some of them were typical for the Barents, Mediterranean, Red and other seas, the other – for the Indian ocean (5, p.65). Tribes of migrants brought them to Central Asia.

Now beads, after coins, fulfill a function of dating material giving evidence for cultural contacts within ancient human society. For example, contacts with Egypt are proved by beads and pendants of Egyptian semiporcelian; perlaceous beads and pendants; cowries, cornelian, garnet and coral beads with sode ornament in a shape of pentangular brightly demonstrate contacts with India; Central Asian cornelian beads with vegetative ornament and hexagrams were typical for Iran; Chinese beads of nephrite and holystone were also popular. Therewith a feedback obviously existed. Thus, in Egypt were spread azure stones and turquoise from Badakhshan.

Thus, beads at the ancient time had a multi-functional character. They were adornment, smacking of power and wealth, a medicine for many diseases, were used for mantic purposes and as a monetary unit. We would hope that further scientific researches, ethnographic data, sources and new archeological finds of adornments with beads will enrich our knowledge in this field and make deeper our concept about fashion and tastes of ancient people as well as about the beads and some other functions they played at that time.

Author: Valentina Luneva

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