Tiny windows on history: beads and cultures that produced them

The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, by Lois Sherr Dubin. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 364 pp. $60. Do beads define history or does history define beads?

Little things such as beads can tell so many stories about beauty, history, cultures, and people. Lois Dubin, a landscape architect whose profession is international in scope, has acquired beads from many lands over a period of 30 years. Drawing on her own knowledge as well as museum curators, gallery owners, archaeologists, anthropologists, bead specialists, collectors, and photographers, she has brought together a vast amount of information in ``The History of Beads.''

No matter how technical that information is, her desire to convey an understanding and appreciation of people permeates her book. Simple changes often have far-reaching effects. Take, for example, Idar-Oberstein, Germany's agate bead industry. In the 1830s the international aspect of beadmaking craftsmanship and marketing was evident as agates from Brazil were shipped to Germany for cutting and then to Africa for marketing to compete with beadmakers from India.

The book contains 16 major divisions with an extensive bibliography and several appendixes.

Photos are large enough to show detail. The majority are alive with color. Each photo is accompanied by a thorough explanation and identification.

In addition, there are 15 maps detailing the movement of beads and materials, sources of materials, and various centers of beadmaking and/or distribution activities. With names, dates, routes, and more, these maps reinforce the written historical information.

A bead chart glossary explains specific terms and a bead shape table gives pictures and names of the basic bead shapes. But, by far the most comprehensive and informative supplement to the words and photos is a foldout time line of bead history. Europe, Western Asia, the Mediterranean, Egypt, India, the Far East, Southeast Asia, North America, Middle and South America, and Africa each have their own time line all running parallel to one another.

More specific geographical areas are indicated on the time lines along with archaeological sites of bead finds and events in bead history. The time lines picture more than 2,000 beads, which have numbers corresponding to their cultural and chronological groupings that enable the reader to refer to the adjoining Bead Chart for additional facts.

All through the book basic processes of beadmaking techniques are presented in a style that promotes further exploration on the part of the reader.

Many readers will agree with Dubin that ``we experience the universe in a bead.''

Margaret Anne Harrold has been designing and producing jewelry for more than 25 years.

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