Glass beads were a crucial part of the exchange system that developed at Jamestown between the English and Native Virginians as the colonists bartered for much needed food supplies. Glass beads were traded throughout the world by European explorers and colonists and different varieties appeared at different times and places. One of the most common varieties brought to North America in the Colonial period were simple round robin’s egg blue beads, designated variety IIa40 in the Kidd and Kidd (1970) typology. Blue and white beads were preferred by many Native groups up and down the east coast of North America, including the Powhatan and other tribes in Virginia, and the European traders catered to their market. Round robin’s egg blue beads, usually measuring between 4 and 10 mm in diameter, are the most common bead found at Jamestown. Almost 5,000 glass beads have been excavated so far across the site and over 1,000 of them are this variety, with more emerging every field season.
During the 17th century, the majority of beads were produced by drawing molten glass into a long, thin tube called a cane and then breaking it into much shorter lengths that could be reheated and rounded into spherical beads. These drawn glass beads came in many colors and could even have stripes or multiple layers of different colored glass. These decorated varieties went in and out of fashion over time and some can be used by archaeologists to associate a site with a specific date range. However, certain colors of simple round beads such as robin’s egg blue and white remained extremely popular from the 16th through the 18th century. Because of their enduring popularity, robin’s egg blue beads are found on a wide variety of archaeological sites and are difficult to date with precision based on appearance alone.
Chemical analysis of glass beads can reveal differences in the composition of the glass and coloring agents, giving further clues towards more specific production dates. Subtle differenced in the copper used to give the beads their distinctive blue color may also reveal more about where the beads were manufactured. Venice was the main production center of quality European glass as early as the 13th century and this remained the case through the 17th century, making it the probable source of most of the glass trade beads excavated at Jamestown. However, competition began to emerge in places like the Netherlands as craftsmen emigrated and the importance of trade beads in the emerging global exchange network solidified.