Almost 5,000 glass beads have been excavated at Jamestown, reflecting their importance in the trade networks that connected the Native Virginians and the European new-comers. Venice was the center of the European glass industry from the late 13th century and was the main producer of beads through the 16th century. As glass trade beads became a crucial element in Europe’s many colonial expeditions, glass making in other parts of Europe such as the Netherlands and France flourished in the 17th century. Many popular bead varieties were produced in several locations, but some different types can be traced to particular manufacturing sites or trade routes through specific European countries.
The most common method for mass producing glass beads in the 17th century was a technique known as drawn cane, where a bubble of molten glass was stretched, or drawn, into a long tube and broken into individual beads once it cooled. Very short sections were reheated and smoothed into round or oval beads, while longer sections became tubular beads. Simple monochrome beads were very common, especially blue and white, but other varieties had one or more internal layers and/or stripes on the outer surface. Simple stripes were added by laying thin rods of glass along the cane as it was drawn, and compound stripes were created by layering an even smaller rod above the first, so that two bands of the first color (usually white) flanked the central stripe. Twisting a striped cane as it was drawn produced a spiral pattern.
Tubular green beads with spiral white on red stripes have been found on various archaeological sites and are recorded in academic typologies as Ibb’1: the Roman numeral I stands for a tubular shape, bb indicates compound stripes, and the apostrophe means that the stripes are twisted. Twenty-five beads with this color pattern have been excavated at Jamestown, but only one of them has spiral stripes (first image: Ibb’1). All the rest are straight (second image: Ibb*), a pattern not recorded elsewhere. They may have been cut from the ends of a cane where the twist simply isn’t visible, or from an entire cane left untwisted intentionally or by mistake.
Why did these imperfect beads end up at Jamestown? It was once theorized that they were produced on the Island, where glassmakers might have experimented or simply forgotten standard patterns. Although these unusual beads are mostly found in contexts dated to the earliest years of the fort, when James Fort’s first attempt at glassmaking was in progress, there is no evidence that the glassblowers succeeded in making beads, or anything else except a single trial of glass sent back to England in December 1608. Like most of the glass beads excavated at Jamestown, these probably came from Venice. Future research might shed more light on the mystery of their origin!