Carnelian Beads
Carnelian Beads

This round bead is one of 32 in the Jamestown collection made from carnelian. Carnelian is a red variety of the mineral chalcedony that contains hematite and other iron compounds that oxidize and become more vivid when exposed to heat, either naturally or intentionally. Sixteen of the carnelian beads excavated at Jamestown are round, nine are roughly faceted lozenges, five are irregularly shaped, and one is tubular with rough facets. Only nine are from secure contexts, but all of these date to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. This indicates that these beads pre-date the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia in 1619. Unlike carnelian artifacts on later sites in the Mid-Atlantic region that are often associated with enslaved populations, stone beads found at Jamestown are associated with the English colonists and may have been personal belongings or high status trade items. 

There are various sources of carnelian around the world, including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South America, and even England, and people have been making carnelian beads for thousands of years. The most significant sources of carnelian are in the Indian subcontinent, and India has been the primary manufacturing center of carnelian beads traded across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for millennia. Export of Indian carnelian into Europe took off around the first century CE during the Roman period, is documented in seventeenth century European sources, and even continues today. In addition to the local abundance of the mineral, a long tradition of expert craftsmanship among the Indian bead makers enabled them to produce a steady supply of high quality material for trade. Southern India is known for making faceted beads and for a manufacturing process where beads are polished before they are drilled by chipping a small dimple on both ends and drilling from both sides. Western India, including Cambay (Khambhat), is known for manufacturing beads that are drilled before they are polished. The carnelian beads found at Jamestown display both visibly chipped and smoothed dimples in both the round and faceted shapes, suggesting that they were made in different regions.

Carnelian was also crafted into beads and other artifacts by indigenous people in South America, but carnelian artifacts made there have not been found on other early seventeenth century English archaeological sites in North America. This and other evidence suggests that India is the most likely source of the seventeenth century carnelian beads recovered at Jamestown. These beads would have been exported from India into Europe, and from there traveled to Virginia with the English colonists.

Semiprecious stone beads including carnelian, crystal quartz, amethyst, amber, jet, and other materials were popular jewelry in seventeenth century Europe, and these stones often had medicinal, mystical, or religious associations as well. Various English Medieval and Renaissance sources attribute carnelian worn against the skin with the power to give courage or restrain anger, dispel bad dreams, and preserve the carrier from witches and harms, all of which may have been comforting to a colonist departing for Virginia. These beads traveled a long way to Jamestown, and their presence highlights the global trade network that connected distant parts of the colonial world.

related images


Blair, E. H. Pendleton, L. S. A. and Francis Jr, P. J. (2009). The Beads of St. Catherines Island. American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Evans, J. (1922). Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England. Clarendon Press, UK.

Francis Jr., P. J. (2001). The stone bead industry of southern India. Beads: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers 12-13:49-62. O’Donoghue, M. (ed.) (2006). Gems Their Sources, Descriptions, and Identification. 6th ed. Elsevier, Oxford.