Fugitive Beads

Recently I had the fortune of seeing Rachel Louise Snyder at a book reading here in Phnom Penh. She recently wrote a book called “Fugitive Denim” that details the construction of a pair of jeans from design through production (including chapters on growing cotton and weaving fabric) to appearing at your local retail store. I’m reading Snyder’s book now and am enjoying it a lot. Snyder is fairly well known for her This American Life piece on the garment industry in Cambodia and a large portion of her book is devoted to this topic. At the end of her reading someone asked her about the state of sweatshops and the garment industry (in Cambodia and in general). She noted that while lots of people say that they don’t use sweatshop labor it is really an impossible thing to guarantee. There are not enough inspectors and factory inspections are tedious. In reality, if a big order comes in then you may have to work overtime to meet that order. Then she said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) “Jeans cost $30 in 1981. You can still buy a pair of jeans for $30 today. How is that? The truth is that if you buy a pair of jeans for $30 someone, somewhere has paid the price.” In other words even if jeans from the Gap cost $30 and Gap says they don’t use sweatshop labor, the globalized nature of our economy means that somewhere along the line of production someone got screwed.

So what does this have to do with archaeology and beads? Well a lot actually, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When I was in high school and college I worked in two different bead stores, both of which regularly carried antique or even ancient beads. I won’t lie, I LOVED these beads and they are the reason I am writing a dissertation on beads now. However the back story to these beads was always fuzzy. Much like a pair of jeans at the Gap, I knew beads had come from Africa or India and that they were old but how they got to my store as a mystery. One string of beautiful white agate I bought were from Mali and called dig beads. I know now that dig beads, in this case, meant they were looted.

Recently when I was back home my mom and I were in a bead store where she spotted a beautiful necklace made with tiny shards of glass. The store owner had said they were shards of Roman glass from Afghanistan, but had no other information. I was suspicious but we bought it anyway. This past week my mom was in Milwaukee at the giant Bead and Button Show. She told me that she saw several other vendors there selling the same kind of roman glass beads strung into a necklace. After asking around she was told that a cache of these broken shards of Roman glass were found in Afghanistan. Because there was a perception that these broken pieces of glass were useless in their present state, they were strung onto a necklace and then smuggled out of the country to be given a second life. The smuggling aspect was played up in this story, I think to add to the appeal and exoticness of the beads. My mom asked me what I thought. Before I respond I should say that I’m not judging my mom, my old bead stores, or anyone who currently sells or buys beads like this. I would venture to say almost no one fully understands where the beads come from and how they get there. I have a small collection of beads that are of dubious origin. But the story told to my mom is not truthful and after talking with her about it she suggested I write more on the blog to spread the word.   So here it goes.

The Afghani glass bead necklace my mom got and was for sale at the Bead and Button show was not an innocent find by a bunch of well-meaning Afghanis. The pieces of glass were looted from an archaeological site. This might seem fairly benign except that looting archaeological sites for beads is intensely destructive. To find one bead several cubic meters of an archaeological site will be destroyed beyond repair. As a reminder- here’s a before (i.e. not yet looted) and after (looted) photo from my recent trip to NW Cambodia.

Some of those pits are over 1 meter deep. This means that the past is literally being erased. There is very little an archaeologist can do once a site has been looted like this.

[Update: A photo essay by John Vink showing the looting of a site called Bit Meas in Cambodia.  His caption is incorrect, the site is not a Cham graveyard but an Iron Age site (approx. 500 BC- AD 500)]

Looting in places like Cambodia and Afghanistan is often a subsistence activity. People may come upon what appears to be an archaeological site by accident and then continue digging to look for things to sell. Or people may go out to dig for artifacts during slow parts of the year. In Cambodia, beads are the specific target of looters and they can be sold to dealers or middle-men for a few dollars. These middle-men or dealers in turn resell them at a much higher price point. Therefore you can’t even say that buying looted beads is helping the local economy, instead most of your money is going to a middleman. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the South China Morning Post:

“Other villages in the Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey have had better luck. The graves there that are worth the really big money are the last resting places of chiefs from a culture that flourished more than 1,000 years ago, the progenitors of the kings who built the extraordinary temple complex at nearby Angkor Wat.

But the graves of their subjects often have a few glass beads in them – enough to sell to traders in the nearest town for a few US dollars and make the digging worthwhile.

Glass beads are in demand in Bangkok where they are prized as talismans with the power of the dead chiefs they were buried with. They are often reworked and sold as amulets, and there is a thriving market for them on eBay among European and American collectors.”

These artifacts are then smuggled out of the country. They are smuggled because in most countries it is illegal to remove antiquities! If an ancient/antique bead (or any artifact for that matter) comes from a country that can currently or in the recent past be described as impoverished, war-torn, or corrupt you can be 100% sure that the object was not obtained and exported legally.

Recently there have been reports that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan the illeagal antiquities trade has been funding organized crime and even terrorism! I’m not quite ready to say that buying ancient beads means that the terrorists win, but the supply chain of ancient beads is not a clean one.

So to recap:

1. Beads are looted from places like Afghanistan and Cambodia by desperately poor people who get only a few dollars for their effort. A single ancient bead that you see in a market or bead show means that an archaeological site and a country’s cultural heritage has been destroyed for only a few dollars.

2. Middlemen buy the beads from the looters for a few bucks and then resell them to collectors/dealers for drastically higher prices, keeping the profit for themselves. In some cases this profit goes to fund nefarious activities.

3. Beads are illegally removed from countries, in violation of cultural heritage laws.

4. Beads make their way to Milwaukee, or Chicago, or New York and are sold to people who often have no idea about how the beads were obtained.

So what to do? Looting of archaeological sites is often related to poverty and lawlessness within a country. This is a long-term systemic problem. So what YOU can do is not create a demand for these objects. Ask hard questions about how beads were obtained and where they were from and if something is not right, don’t buy them. This is hard advice to take, believe me, but without demand, there will be little impetus to loot an archaeological site for beads. On behalf of myself and future archaeologists, I thank you.

12 responses to “Fugitive Beads

  1. Very disturbing. As a beader, I would like to know how to recognize what beads might be looted and also how to go about spreading the word to the bead community. Unfortunately, I don’t think the bead buying public thinks twice about where the beads they are purchasing have come from or who may have been harmed in the process. Or that the money paid to the middle men may be used for nefarious purposes. The sad thing is, I love those Roman glass beads and buy purchasing them, did I help out a young woman who had just opened a bead store, or am I the last participant in a long chain of unsavory activity? What do I do with them-wear them, hide them, donate them to a museum???

  2. Wow, Alison. And WOW, Mom. My thought was – were the shards of Roman glass *shards* when first found? Or was some small artifact like a jar or vessel shattered, so that it would bring in more money as shards? Of course, no way to know. I love beads too (almost all of mine are the Czech seed variety, though) but I do have some “trade beads” and one or two very old chevrons — and two beads that I was told (by someone whose authority is highly questionable too) that they were traded for human slaves “in the old days”. They’re in my case – I could not wear them in any form, because when I hold them I fancy hearing crying (you know my overactive imagination). I see it as an insurmountable problem, Alison — but I can tell you, I WILL ask and question, LOUDLY, next time I’m at a bead store, if it comes up. And Mom? What a puzzle, I’ve no idea what to do either……..

  3. Good post.

    And I like the before/after pics. A similar educational campaign worked well to curb the demand for ivory, but I think that was also backed up with legislation and enforcement (as least in the US). And then there is the whole “blood diamond” campaign. Good stuff.

    Now how about a follow up as to why it is important for a poor village resident to forgo those couple of dollars in exchange for not destroying an ancient site?

    It’s an easy pitch to say that these sites are important for “national heritage” and to feed the Academic-Industrial Complex. But how to explain this to the day-to-day curators of these sites?

    At the risk of offending Al’s mom (and exposing my ignorance of the bead scene), perhaps the answer on our side is to just *not* buy any old beads, and spend our bead money on the handful of craftspeople making their living as beadsmiths today?

    Or perhaps a “heritage-friendly” certification program for bead dealers? Setting that up would really give you something to occupy your time while waiting for a sweet academic position in a few years!

  4. Elly Madavi

    This is not a problem only related to the ancient beads. Here we have every thing cheep and easy to buy at the price of others being screwed. The looted ancient beads are just a tiny fraction of a bigger problem. I do not encourage any one to buy them, better not to buy, but only avoid buying them is not going to solve the problem. We should take the same approach for every thing that we buy to use or to enjoy, which will make our life quite miserable for few years, but in long run the hidden slavery of the poor people will end, and the world and its archaeological sites will be protected.

  5. I’m really enjoying the discussion on this so far! Here’s my response to some of the issues/questions above:

    -It’s impossible to tell if a bead was looted by looking at it. Some general guidelines would be a) how old is it and b)where is it from. Most old/ancient/antique beads are looted- so in general it is probably best to avoid them unless it has a good provenance (as they say in the art world). If an old bead is really valuable there may also be fakes floating around (like dzi beads for example). I love fakes/replicas. Not only is it preserving archaeological sites but it’s allowing people to continue an older craft tradition. Just as long as you don’t pay through the nose for them!

    -Most bead store owners don’t really have a good idea about how old beads arrive in their stores and I think many wholesale dealers might not know either (or have a semi-true story to tell buyers). Truth be told old beads make up a very small part of bead store business, most beads in stores are new. (And bead buyers are supporting lots of excellent modern beadsmiths).

    Andy- your heritage friendly business would be the PERFECT answer to all of this mess; a certification program for bead stores in which they could guarantee not to sell or buy dubious or looted beads. Then buyers like my mom wouldn’t have to be worried! I’m totally gonna file this away in my brain.

    -Not buying these beads is definitely the thing to do. However if you already have beads that you suspect are looted then you might as well wear them an enjoy them! They won’t do any good sitting in a drawer. And then when people ask about them you can use them as a way to bring up this issue and spread the word!

  6. Russell Carter

    I have to question wearing those beads that may be looted only for the reason that it may increase a desire for someone else to have that kind of bead, and hence creating demand. I do agree that wearing the “looted” beads (sorry for making that sound so onerous, just can’t come up with a euphemism right now) can be used as an opportunity to educate others on the damage, etc, done with them, but the “setting” for educating someone really has to be alomost specific to the task of “educating” and not wearing the beads as apparel or accessory. For example, wearing beads at a social event where someone might see them and offer glowing comments on the beads attractiveness, etc, would probably not be a place to wear them. The person admiring the beads may have an increased desire to own similar beads, thus increasing the demand. On the other hand wearing them at an event that might be discussing the cause of looting would be an opportunity to teach others that what a looted bead might look like, etc. Just a thought. This discussion could go one, perhaps should go on. Sorry to make it more complex, Mom

  7. I have to disagree with Dr. Carter. I don’t think the occasion where the beads are worn would make any difference at all. Either you wear them or you don’t. Also, for all I know, these may be copies. And, while we are on the subject, do we know the working conditions at the Czech or Japanese bead factories, for example? Maybe the only safe beads to buy are glass beads made by someone you know!!

  8. Elly Madavi

    Good point Dian!
    So enjoy your beads as long as you wish without any worry, and if they are real, later you can donate them to museum; like all other ancient objects that were looted for centuries, sold and traveled around, until they landed in museums, and this is a very good ending.

  9. Excellent post, Al. Even outside the antiquities trade, the cheapness of manufacturing is such a race for the bottom. It’s had to figure out what to do, but at least as far as what I can do, every little baby step can help. Like you (I suspect), I have a problem saying that the impoverished people living near archeological sites ought to stop looting. Their situation is often so desperate that the choice between daily necessities for their family and the cultural heritage of their country isn’t even really a choice. The whole situation is very sad.

  10. Alison,
    Very stimulating post! You are quite right poverty is the motivator here but nationalism must be used for good when it comes to the preservation of patrimony. I feel folks in the countryside should be made aware of the value of archaeology in nationalist issues through grass-roots training. Stronger enforcement of laws, a public eduction campaign for both looters and buyers is essential… we are doing our best on these fronts!
    Heritage Friendly status is a good idea too… we need to go International!

  11. Pingback: Replica Iron Age Beads | Alison in Cambodia

  12. Hi, I followed your link from the Beads-L group, and wanted to say thank you for such a well-written article on the topic. I’ll be reposting it to my Facebook page and elsewhere.

    -Su Poole