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Indo-Pacific and Javanese Beads

The most widely distributed beads of all time were the Indo-Pacific beads, sometimes called trade wind beads. Their history begins in Arikamedu, Southern India in the Fourth Century B.C.E. It subsequently developed in Sri Lanka, in the Malay Peninsula, Thailand and in Funan, the first state in South East Asia, now south Viet Nam. Finally, in 8th through 12th Century bead centers appeared in the Srivijaya kingdom in South Sumatra. By the 12th Century, Indo-Pacific bead making had disappeared in Southeast Asia, although it continued in Southern India for some time. Evidence for the wide dispersion of these relatively small, mostly monochrome, beads comes from royal tombs in China, Japan, Korea, sites in Micronesia, the Philipines, Java, Sumatra, the Middle East and West Africa. There is evidence that beadmakers settled in Sumatra and Java and subsequently created beads for their specific market. The earliest bead finds in Java and Bali date between 100 B.C.E. to 300 C.E. These were the highly valued ‘mote salah’ or false pearl, a drawn bead that has a distinctive orange-red color. Similar beads were also found at Oc-eo in Funan (68 to 550 C.E.).

Javanese beads of the Classical Period (250 - 1500 C.E.) draw on the glass making technologies of India in the monochrome drawn glass beads and some of the striped beads. The extra-ordinary mosaic and combed beads found in East Java show influence from late Persian glass techniques. These large beads are now thought to have been made in Java and dated at 600 to 900 C.E. An interesting side note is that some of the distinctive striped beads and ‘double eye’ beads found in Central Java and dated from 750 C.E. are similar - perhaps identical - to caches of beads now in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The finds were north in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The glass was analyzed and it was concluded that it was not produced in the area but was identical, in all physical respects and construction, to glass being produced in Persia in the period of 750 to 1000 C.E.

How these ancient beads are found is well known. For example, Java has been densely populated for a long time. Being strategically positioned for trade between China and India gave Sumatra and Java great power and wealth. This led to several high cultures developing in this area, the Sumatran kingdom of Srivijaya (3rd century C.E.) and the subsequent Javanese dynasties. The Indonesian archipelago sits on the ‘Ring of Fire’, meaning that there are frequent volcanic events and earthquakes. Over hundreds of years volcanic eruptions routinely covered the countryside with ash and things were buried. This area is heavily terraced for wet rice cultivation. During particularly heavy monsoons heavy erosion can occur and previously buried artifacts see the light of day. The island of Java is densely populated and there is much poverty. A rice farmer repairing broken terraces due to heavy runoff, discovering such treasure on his land will take advantage of it, government strictures notwithstanding. The prized finds were ceramics, gold, statuary and other bronze pieces from the Classical Period of Java (650-1500 C.E.). For a long time beads were thrown aside as trinkets of little value.

It was in the early Eighties that a few ancient Javanese beads began appearing in the antique markets in Java and Bali. These quickly attracted bead collectors and more beads appeared. Unfortunately, starting with the late Eighties and the Nineties, enterprising people began reshaping some ancient glass into more saleable forms and eventually the inevitable reproduction beads from East Java. To the trained eye the difference between the authentic and the reproduction is readily apparent.