Little Glass Time Machines – Sexwamin and the Bohemian Blown-Glass Beads

Pic: The beads, pre-cleaning 

Now that the CAA’s have passed and I’m in the final stretch of writing up my thesis, I think it’s about time I write here about my research into blown-glass beads that I’ve been working on over the past 8 months.  I’ve mentioned my research briefly here or there, but now that I’ve officially presented it I think it’s go-time!  I don’t have nearly enough room to write out everything I know so I’m going to summarize the important parts for you!  And of course there will be pretty pictures, because the beads are super pretty.  By the end if you have any more questions, feel free to contact me and send them my way!

Uncovering the Beads at Sexwamin

As I’ve written about, I work closely with the shíshálh Nation, whose land is on the Sunshine Coast of southern BC (just north of North Vancouver).  I first started working with the shíshálh as a CRM bioarchaeologist, and have continued to work as a bioarchaeologist with them only now straddling both CRM and academic research.  They are an absolutely amazing community to work with, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the work that I do!

In late May 2015, my shíshálh colleague Darryl was monitoring a sign post installation when an adult human (female) mandible was found.  I was asked to go back to site the next day with Darryl and determine if there were more human remains and/or if it was an in situ burial.  The excavation site was just 52 metres north of the site boundaries of Sexwamin (in my CAA presentation I used the spelling tsxwamin) (pronounced sex-wah-main).  This site (DjSa-3) was recorded in 1976 according to the amount of visible shell midden.  Since then, and until I came along, no archaeology has been conducted at the site.  Immediately across the street from the beads (and a little bit within the excavation unit) was a lot of visible shell midden, supporting the fact that the site is much larger than previously recorded.

Sexwamin (‘Herring-Spawn Place’), at the time of contact, was the heart of the shíshálh universe.  It was in the centre of the most populous region and was an enormous year-round village site where the shíshálh gathered to conduct winter dances and ceremonials.  There were 7 long houses in the village (reported location was 360 metres west of the mandible and beads).  When early settlers began to move into the area in the 1860’s, the people from Sexwamin began to move and relocate to the nearby Skardon Islands, largely abandoning Sexwamin by 1920.  St. Mary’s hospital was built in 1930 where the longhouses had once stood.

Bead and Longhouse locations.png
DjSa-3 (the red blobs)

While on site a local resident approached us and told us that about 30 years earlier a human skull had been found while a hydro pole was being installed, the location of the skull today being unknown.  He pointed out the location, which was 17 metres west of the beads and mandible.  Based on the extreme fragility of the beads, the high number of intact beads we collected, and the 17 metre distance between them and the reported skull location, I think the possibility exists that the skull and mandible belong to 2 different individuals.  I have a hard time imaging the beads moving 17 metres without being smashed to bits.  And because the skull location is in thicker shell midden and the mandible is in disturbed ground lacking noticeable stratigraphy, that suggests it was the mandible which was moved and not the skull.


Long story short = no more HR, disturbed burial, and 114 beads and bead fragments recovered (plus some lithics and faunal fragments).  Darryl had actually found a couple of beads the day before and because of this we knew they were super fragile, so we decided to forgo the shovels and dig by hand, which I think is partially responsible for the high numbers of beads we recovered.

The Beads

This turquoise blue colour was my favourite!

I had never seen beads like these before.  My first thought when Darryl said “glass beads” was of Russian Trade Beads, a blue faceted bead we’re familiar with in BC.  It was obvious right off the bat that these weren’t Russian Trade Beads.  These beads were 2 different sizes (1cm diametre and 5 mm diametre) and 5 different colours of extremely thin (<1mm thick) blown glass.  All 80 intact beads had smooth, unadorned exteriors, broken collars at either end, and 2 seams running between those collars (on either ‘side’ of the bead).  They also all had a super shiny metallic interior coating, unfortunately much of which flaked out during cleaning.

All Beads Edited
The glass beads. (L) 15 extra-large beads, (C) 65 medium beads, (R) 34 bead fragments (sizes according to Kidd and Kidd 1970)
Glass Beads
Summary of information regarding bead sizes and colours
Metallic Shine
Look at how shiny and metallic that interior coating was (you can clearly see the reflection of my hand and camera in the bead)

The Bohemian Bead Industry

I had never seen beads like these before, let alone ever actually researched glass beads.  I had no clue where to start.  So I turned to Google.  Several Google searches later I had landed on a blog with a couple of photos/descriptions closely matching the Sexwamin beads and a bit of historical information about the Bohemian glass bead industry.  I had my starting point.  Long story short = the Bohemian glass bead history is really centered on the development of 3 styles of glass bead (and fueled largely by their rivalry with Venetian bead-makers).  In the mid-17th century Bohemian garnet-cutters

Russian beads
Russian Trade Beads

invented a faceted bead made to look like cut stones.  Russian Trade Beads are actually a classic example of this.  In the mid-18th century Bohemian bead-makers invented a 2-part mold which would allow them to make beads in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Molded beads had a characteristic seam around their middle.  And finally, in 1876, Bohemian bead-makers invented a 2-part mold designed to make multiple blown-glass beads at once in a chain to be broken apart into individual beads later.  These beads were distinguished by 2 broken collars at either end and seams running between those collars.  Sound familiar?  With this mold invention Bohemia became the world-leader in blown-glass bead production by the early 20th century.  Thanks to this history, I believe that the beads from Sexwamin were likely manufactured in Bohemia after 1876.  Further support of this is that Bohemians were known to withhold gold and silver blown-glass beads from local markets exclusively for export overseas, and the majority of the beads I collected were gold and silver.

Bead chain
An example of a chain of blown-glass beads manufactured in a multi-bead mold.

Blown-Glass Beads in North America

Bead Table

I wanted to know where else in North America these multi-bead-mold-blown-beads had been found.  Due to their fragility, blown-glass beads (of any style) are actually extremely rare in archaeological contexts.  ‘Rare’ being a word archaeologists love.  Blown-glass beads have been found before, but I was looking for the exact style which had been found at Sexwamin.  What I found first is that blown-glass beads have never been found in British Columbia before.  Spreading out from BC, I found that in total there are only 5 sites in North America where this exact style of bead has been found. SexwaminOld Sacramento CA, San Buenaventura CA, Deadwood SD (yep, as in the HBO show ‘Deadwood’), and Tallahassee FL.  Nowhere else in Canada has reported blown-glass beads of any style. Sexwamin was also the only site of the 5 where the beads had been found in a mortuary context, which I think is also why we recovered a comparatively high number of them.

NA Beads Map
The 5 North American sites where this style of blown-glass bead has been found (1 – Séxw?áwin, 2 – Old Sacramento, 3 – San Buenaventura, 4 – Deadwood, 5 – Tallahassee)

As for the connections between the 5 sites and why it was here where this style of blown-glass bead was found, I can’t find any connection other than the railroads that went through each site (excluding Sexwaminbut the railroad did go to nearby Vancouver).  I think the beads may have traveled via the railroad, either as individual beads or items of personal adornment.  But I don’t think there’s any specific link beyond that.  I also don’t know how the beads ended up in North America to begin with.  Bohemian beads were sold/traveled EVERYWHERE so tracing their routes is not an easy task to do.  Ultimately, the rarity of these beads makes them exciting, but that same rarity so far limits the amount of information I can find.

Deadwood, SD


This research has certainly brought about several conclusions due to the lack of any single solid conclusion.  Uncovering the glass beads and the mandible extends the site boundaries of DjSa-3 – the site is much larger than what was previously recorded.  The possibility of the skull and mandible being from 2 different individuals suggests we may have found the cemetery area of Sexwamin.  These beads being found in association with human remains and their large quantities indicates they were likely specific mortuary offerings, and they also represent some form of trade between Sexwamin inhabitants and early settlers to the area.  The beads were likely produced in Bohemia and this is the first time beads like these are being reported in Canada.  And finally, glass beads are like little glass time machines in that their styles can give us date indicators for sites.  These beads give us a new date indicator – 1876.

I don’t think this is the only existence of these beads in Canada.  Because they’re so fragile they might be destroyed on sites before we even know they’re there.  All I suggest is that if archaeologists are working on sites where glass beads are being found, keep your eyes open and you may be able to find more of these rare and fragile Bohemian blown-glass beads!

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Selected References

  • Acheson, S. and S. Riley. 1976. Gulf of Georgia Archaeological Survey: Powell River and     Sechelt Regional Districts.  Report on file with British Columbia Archaeological Branch.
  • Barnett, H. G. 1955. The Coast Salish of British Columbia. Eugene: The University Press.
  • Beckmann, J. 1846. A History of Inventions, Discoveries, and Origins. Translated by William Johnson. Vol 1. London: Henry G. Bohn.
  • Francis Jr., P. 1979. The Czech Bead Story. World of Beads Monograph Series. No. 2. Lake Placid: Lapis Route Books.
  • The Beads of Bohemia. The Margaretologist. 13(1): 1-12.
  • Karklins, K. 1982. Glass Beads. History and Archaeology Vol. 59. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch. Parks Canada. Environment Canada.
  • Ross, L.A. 1989. Bohemian Glass Beadmaking: Translation and Discussion of a 1913 German Technical Article. Initial translation by Barbara Pflanz. Beads. 1:81-94
  • von Tayenthal, M. 1900. Die Gablonzer Industrie und die Produktivgenossenschaft der Hohlperlenzeuger im Politischen Bezirke Gablonz. Freiburg: Wagner’s Universitäts-Buchdruckerei.

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