Blue Beads and Enslaved African Americans ___________________________________________________________________________________

Archaeologists conducting excavations at plantations have noted that blue glass beads are consistently recovered in the habitation and work areas used by slaves.  Although clearly used for ornamentation, several archaeologists, such as William Adams and Sam Smith, advanced the idea that blue beads may have had cultural meaning for slaves.  While we were in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, Melanie Cabak wrote a term paper on the use of blue beads by slaves in the South for Leland Ferguson's historical archaeology class.  A few years later we collaborated with Linda Stine and published a journal article on the topic in 1996.  We were pleasantly surprised when the article was later selected in 2000 for inclusion in a Society for Historical Archaeology Reader on artifact analysis and interpretation.    


Strand of antique blue glass beads from West Africa.


Journal Article Abstract

Blue beads are consistent finds at African-American sites.  Archaeologists acknowledge these artifacts were used for adornment, yet some researchers also propose beads possessed additional cultural meaning among African Americans.  For this study, bead data from African-American sites in the South are analyzed.  The results indicate blue is the predominant bead color.  The prevalence of these items suggests they may indeed have been an important yet unrecognized aspect of African-American culture.  The multiple underlying meanings assigned to blue beads are considered through reference to ethnographic information, folklore, and oral history associated with West and Central Africa and the Southeast.

Stine, Linda F., Melanie A. Cabak, and Mark D. Groover  1996    Blue Beads as African-American Cultural Symbols.  Historical Archaeology 30(3):49-75.

Blue bead article in pdf format

Reprinted in:

Brauner, David R.  2000    Approaches to Material Culture Research for Historical Archaeologists, 2nd edition.  Society for Historical Archaeology, Uniontown, Pennsylvania.




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