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Bone Beads

History of Bone Beads

Bone was one of the first things early humans used for ornament. Since the local butcher shop is a recent development in human history. Most humans had to butcher their own animals. Whether wild or domestic living animals come with a full complement of meat, bones, hide, and other organs. Early humans were efficient and frugal out of necessity. Every part of the animal that could be used was used, meat for dinner, hide for clothing, shoes, and containers, fat for suet and tallow, horn and bone for tools and ornaments. Even the internal organs had their uses.Early peoples worked bone with stone tools and some of the earliest known "Venus figurines" were made of carved bone. These are among some of the earliest known ornaments. Using little more than a sharp edge of a stone as a saw and a hard piece of slate or sandstone as a grinding surface early people made a remarkable variety of beads and jewelry.Bird bones were small and hollow and they required little alteration to become beads or pendants. They can even be made into whistles, these were prized the shamans to summon or dismiss spirits. Snake vertebrae were ready made beads and just need a good cleaning before becoming a necklace. Many have been found in association with ritual paraphernalia. Deer and sheep hooves were made into noisy clackers by both the Scythic tribes of southern Russia before the birth of Christ and more recently by the American Indian tribes.What do all these examples have in common, they are associated with ritual and magic. People believed the spirit of the animal continued to influence whoever wears a part of him, especially if the bones were altered only slightly. Modern urban humans, beginning with the Romans, have lost the sense of magic that comes from being close companions to the animals that sustains them. As people became more "civilized" and had access to a local butcher shops, they also became less attuned to the source of their food and the magical influences that comes from using other animals to sustain their lives. The respect and reverence of the hunter for his prey was broken as soon as that prey was kept in a pen.Bone beads lost much of their magical influence as humanity developed towns and cities. The development of domesticated animals meant hunters were no longer reliant on the magical protection afforded by the bones of the animals they hunted. The connection between hunter and hunted was lost forever. They were relegated to being an ornament of the poor who could not afford stone or ivory beads. Today bone beads are a cottage industry in Indonesia where individual craftsmen and women make bone beads for a greater global market.


A Handbook on Beads by W.G.N. van der SleenThe History of Beads from 38,000 B.C. to the Present by Lois Sherr DubinThe Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe edited by Barry CunliffeThe Universal Bead by Joan Mowat EriksonWomen’s Work The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Making Bone Beads

Most modern bone beads are made from cow or sheep or camel bones and are a byproduct of the food industry. In fact they have always been a part of the food chain. Today most bone beads come from Indonesia where they are made by made hand in small factories and private homes. Bone is a durable material that is hard enough to wear well, but soft enough to be worked with nearly any hard tool. Modern bead makers have the advantage of steel tools and powered machinery. This makes bone beads both abundant an inexpensive.Processing raw bone into workable material is a simple process, but it is smelly and dangerous because on the chemicals involved. First the bones are cleaned with soapy water and a stiff brush. All the meat, gristle and ligaments have to be removed. Then the bones are boiled in a dilute acid either hydrochloric or sulfuric, until the bones lose the greasy texture of raw bone. When this is done the bones are rinsed thoroughly and dried. The next step requires soaking the bones in a dilute solution of bleach. This removes the last of the protein gelatin that can decompose and rot. Old bone that is poorly processed can have a very strong unpleasant aroma. The last step is to rinse the bones in clear water and dry them thoroughly for several days. After the bones are processed they are cut in small workable pieces. Then they are carved into the shapes we are most familiar with; small pierced carvings, round and oblong beads, pendants and nearly any other shape. After carving the beads can be stained or dyed.Bones are an organic substance made of calcium phosphate and gelatinous protein compounds. It lends itself to bead making very well. Bone has long been used as a substitute for ivory and at first glance the two look similar. There are some very basic differences. The most obvious is that bone is heavier than ivory. Another is that upon close examination bone and ivory have very different appearances. Bone shows concentric layers and a dry appearance. Ivory, on the other hand, has a crisscross pattern and can be polished to a deep luster because the natural gelatin has not been removed.Today bone beads are popular for trendy bead amulets, and some of the favorite shapes include hairpipe for American Indian designs or carved with traditional designs for primitive motifs. Since these beads are still hand carved, each one is unique. While most bone beads are cream colored, brown or black they can be found in every color of the rainbow. Many are stained black or brown to make them look old. Others may be colored with aniline dyes, but natural is the most popular color.


A Handbook on Beads by W. G. N. van der SleenJewelry Concepts and Technology by Oppi UntrachtThe History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present by Lois Sherr Dubin