Venetian glass beads in Alaska

This morning I tweeted a link to a Gizmodo article reporting the discovery of fifteenth Venetian glass beads in Alaska.

Obviously the article is written from a US viewpoint, and makes the point that the beads were probably deposited before 1492 when Columbus arrived in the Carribean,

This is not particularly relevant given that Alaska is a very long way from Hispaniola (where Columbus landed) and the other side of the continent.

What we can say is that these beads were deposited well before any European voyages to the Pacific northwest.

It’s also before the beginning of the Russian expansion into Siberia so we can confidently rule out Russian fur traders as a source.

Interestingly it’s also before the Spanish and Portuguese established a presence in what is now the Phillipines, Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Inuit deposits across the Arctic occasionally turn up belt buckles and other metal artefacts of Russian origin, which shows that there was a pre-contact trading network with Russian settlements further west in the Arctic.

Beads however are kind of special. While essentially worthless they are both pretty and easy to transport and effectively act as a currency, as we see in Australia where the Yolngu traded trepang for beads (the same sort of beads that have been found in Alaska) with Macassan traders and then traded them with communities further south.

These glass beads in Alaska were probably similarly traded, perhaps as part of a network trading furs with Chinese and Korean traders further south, and were traded further north through Kamchatka and on into Alaska.

In Tent Life in Siberia, which describes his role in the failed attempt to build a telegraph line from the USA to St Petersburg via the Bering Strait, George Kennan describes the life of the indigenous people of the Kamchatka peninsula in the 1870’s.

What is striking about his description, is that apart from a few isolated military outposts and Orthodox missions, the indigenous people had contact with few outsiders other than fur traders, and other than tea, Russian enamelware teapots and hurricane lamps, were even then still living what was essentially a traditional lifestyle.

As these beads would predate any substantial Russian expansion to the east, the most probable hypothesis is that they came via China. Chinese merchants had a long tradition of trade with the Siberian peoples closer to the Chinese border, and one could surmise that these merchants sourced the glass beads via the overland Silk Road route, rather than via the porcelain trade with South East Asia, given that there was no European presence at the time they were deposited…

[Update]

There is a second article this morning that takes issue with issue with the date and suggests a late sixteenth/early seventeenth century date is more likely for the beads.

This date is still before any substantial Russian or indeed other European presence in the area, and does not invalidate the hypothesis of the beads being traded from Chinese merchants, the only real change is that a substantially later date makes sourcing via the porcelain trade in South East Asia a possibility

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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