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Roman Beads

The term ‘Roman bead’ is one that is rather loosely used. Beads were produced before the Roman empire by the Phoenicians, in Egypt, and in several bead centers in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Romans took up bead making to the extent that their expanding empire took in the bead making centers of the time. Some Roman bead making would eventually inspire the early Venetian industry. The most significant bead production was carried on in Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Islamic bead makers from the Seventh century on. These Islamic beads are the ones most commonly called ‘Roman’ beads notwithstanding that they date from a period after the fall of Rome.

Djenne, Mali in West Africa, is the source of many ancient and medieval beads on the African continent. Djenne was an independent city-state of the Bozo people from 800 to 1043 CE. The city was moved between the 11th and the 13th Century after it had converted to Islam. There is a distinctive form of eye-bead that has been found in the Djenne area that has confounded researchers for many years. They are believed now to have arrived via the trans-Sahara trade routes from Fustat, or Old Cairo (P. Francis). J.D. Allen suggests that claims of great antiquity, such as Phoenicia (1550 to 300 BCE) or Ptolemaic Egypt (300 to 30 BCE) remain to be proven. More likely is these beads were an import of early or late Islamic beads (632 to 1258 CE), or the Islamic glassworkers themselves. He further suggests that some may in fact be early Venetian beads.

Native African glass beads

Through recent history few glass beads have been made in Africa itself, not counting the Mediterranean area. Many of the beads that have been made copy imported European, ie., Venetian, design. Noteworthy are the wound glass beads of Bida, Nigeria; Mauritanian powder glass beads (Kiffa beads); and Bodom glass beads and Krobo powder glass beads from Ghana. These date variously from the last two Centuries.