Sixteenth-Century Glass Bead Chronology in Southeastern North America

By Little, Keith J. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Sixteenth-Century Glass Bead Chronology in Southeastern North America


Little, Keith J., Southeastern Archaeology


The current widely adopted sixteenth-century glass bead chronology in southeastern North America was essentially formulated more than two decades ago. Subsequently, new glass-bead data have been recorded from the Americas and Europe. A review of this evidence compelled a revaluation and minor revisions of the extant glass-bead chronology.

Over thirty years ago, Jeffrey Brain (1975) and Marvin Smith (1975, 1976, 1977, 1982, 1983; Smith and Good 1982) began working out today's basic chronological outline for sixteenth-century European artifacts recovered from archaeological contexts in southeastern North America. The chronology was accentuated by the subsequent distributional studies of Kathleen Deagan (1987), Jeffrey Mitchem (1989a, 1989b, 1989c; Mitchem and McEwan 1988), Richard Polhemus (1982), Marvin Smith (1987), and Gregory Waselkov (1989). An accumulation of additional data over the past few decades in the Americas and Europe, however, obliged this study to focus on a révaluation of the chronological framework, especially with respect to glass beads. Two competing glass-bead chronologies are examined in light of multiple data collected during the past few decades from European glassworks sites and sites throughout much of eastern North America, as well as historic documentation of European glassworker migrations. The study furnishes a substantial evidentiary basis for minor modifications in the extant chronology, which has been widely adopted in research concerning sixteenth-century glass beads in the Southeast.

Glass Beads as Chronological Indicators

The use of glass beads as chronological indicators has a long history in the archaeology of southeastern North America. Nineteenth-century scholars clearly recognized this potential, at least in the broad sense that the presence of glass beads constituted evidence of post-Columbian occupations. Charles C. Jones (1873:236-238) used the presence of glass beads in mounds along the Georgia coast to argue for their postColumbian origins. In another case, he used the absence of European artifacts to make a case for prehistoric site affiliations. In a similar fashion, Clarence B. Moore dated the Charlotte Thompson mound on the upper Alabama River on the basis of glass beads and other European artifacts. He stated, "This mound was, to us, in one respect of peculiar interest, for, from top to bottom, were objects of iron, of glass [i.e., beads], and of other material, derived from the whites, which proved the mound to be of postColumbian origin" (Moore 1899:320). Cyrus Thomas (1894:647-648, 710-718) also used glass beads and other European artifacts to argue for post-Columbian mound origins arid, in doing so, dispelled the fantastic speculations regarding the identities of mound builders in eastern North America that were circulating during the nineteenth century.

During the first half of the twentieth century, archaeologists were beginning to realize the chronological significance of certain early types of beads in Florida as well as the potential of glass beads for developing relative chronologies. According to John Goggin,

The archaeological objects of European or European derived origin thus includes /sic/ material from a long span of time, and a beginning has now been made in dating this material so a relative chronology of late times can be formulated. For example, it is realized that a whole series of sites, those with the most gold and silver objects, can be recognized, which have a group of distinctive trade beads including the chevron types and cut crystal. These undoubtedly date from the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, while late sites lack these but have other forms of beads. The long standing opinion that little can be done with beads as a tool for dating appears to have no validity. (Goggin 1948:121)

Based largely on an unfinished manuscript written by John Goggin before his death, Charles Fairbanks (1968) published a fairly comprehensive study of Nueva Cadiz and cut crystal beads. …

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