mad in pursuit notebook


Ancient Mosaic Face Bead

ancient mosaic face bead

It is hard to make a big production of tiny things. But I try. My last attempt displayed my excitement at finding a natural dot-in-circle pattern in a thousand year old agate bead. Today's enthusiasm is man-made: a glass mosaic bead fabricated about the time that Jesus walked the earth, or thereabouts.

Face beads are coveted by bead collectors. They were invented in western Asia in the earliest days of glassmaking and boomed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (300 BCE - 400 CE). They are miniature masterpieces.

Artistically crafted mosaic glass beads, also called millefiore ("thousand flowers"), are the product of great technical expertise. The fine detail of the beads was achieved by laying a bundle of preformed colored glass rods in parallel rows so that the cross-section of the bundle had a pattern. The glass was then heat-softened and stretched, fusing the canes together. This miniaturized the design, but the cross-sectional pattern remained unchanged. [Lois Sherr Dubin, The History of Beads]

ancient Roman glass beadsMy bead (above, 1/2" in diameter) is not as well-preserved as the photos I've seen in books. It was obviously buried for centuries, with the surface of the glass eroding from exposure to the elements. In fact, to see the design embedded in my little bead, I have to moisten my finger and dab her face, which temporarily makes the surface glazing transparent -- just long enough to snap a picture.

So it's not like I can really even "display" it, although it does reside in my living room display case. Luckily, the other beads it came strung with are equally ancient and somewhat glitzier, if not quite the mini-masterpiece.

I bought the necklace in New York City, at the Manhattan Antiques Center, in a tiny shop run by Iranian Jews. It was 1990. I had only been collecting beads for a few months but was full of new knowledge and knew that "face beads" were on my must-have list. I remember the shop owner showing me the beads. The Phoenecian eyebeads on the strand (see photo) are themselves prized collectibles. Then the owner stuck a piece of scotch tape to one of the beads and pulled it away (ouch) to reveal the face. I was swept away.

The strand of beads were fabulously expensive, way beyond my budget for crazy. But I was possessed -- collectors know this feeling, akin to falling in love. I'm normally not much of a bargainer, but in this case managed to talk down the price by 45%. Sold!

I forget about this little treasure, passing it several times a day on my way between the kitchen and the TV. I shouldn't. I like thinking about the glass craftsman, working somewhere in the Middle East, watching assistants heating and drawing glass canes in the hot furnaces, stooping in concentration over his workbench. Who received it then? Was a face beads prized like the cameos or lockets of later centuries? Was the bead buried with its owner or lost in the unceasing battles for empire that plague that part of the world? Oh what a story it could tell...

Aug 29, 2012