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date: 29 January 2023

Glass Beads in West Africalocked

Glass Beads in West Africalocked

  • Abidemi Babatunde BabalolaAbidemi Babatunde BabalolaUniversity of Cambridge


The earliest glass beads in the archaeological record in West Africa dates to the 7th through 5th centuries bce, predating the Islamic trade in the region. By early 2nd millennium ce, the occurrence of glass beads had increased exponentially following the influx of goods and people. Thus, glass beads on the subcontinent are traced to outside sources. Compositional analysis has revealed that most glass beads in West Africa were made from soda-lime-silica glass fluxed with either mineral soda or plant ash. A group with soda-lime-alumina and another with high concentration of lead have also been identified. The origins of the glass beads of these compositional groups have been traced to the Middle East, Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean, South Asia, and medieval Europe connecting West African to the global interactive system. Archaeological investigations since 2010 at Ile-Ife, Southwest Nigeria have revealed the existence of the first-known West African primary glassmaking workshop dated to early 2nd millennium ce. The workshop at Ile-Ife mass-produced glass beads and became a regional center supplying glass beads to the trade network. Three techniques of glass bead manufacture are common in West Africa: drawn, wound, and molded/powdered. While drawn and wound beads have early occurrence in West Africa, molded/powdered beads appeared later, popular from the 16th century. Morphologically, glass beads of all colors, shapes, size, and diaphaneity have been recovered from archaeological context. Glass beads are ubiquitous materials in West Africa. They are materiality of globalized world, insignias of power and status, indicators of West African ingenuity and creativity, and emblems of social, political, and religious complexity.


  • Archaeology

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