The previous post on the remarkable bead-rich burials in shíshálh territory generated a great discussion including contributions from some of the project leaders. It’d be good to continue that discussion! But one additional point, as Jesse Morin notes in those comments, and as one of the project leaders Terry Clark raised in an email to me, is the question of, quite simply, how are all these beads getting made? As you can see in the picture above, these shell beads have a hole diameter of less than one millimetre. Terry describes some of the holes being not much larger than a human hair!
We did in face discuss this, ahem, boring issue at some length on this blog in the comments section of this post. The crux of the issue is, every single one of these beads must have been drilled. And yet, the kinds of micro-drills required are essentially unknown from the south coast of British Columbia. So, where are the drills?
Some of the points raised in the previous post comments include:
- nephrite drills are very unlikely
- misclassified bone points, some of which which are actually drills — possible, testable – yet why not noticed yet?
- wooden drill bits (you laugh but it’s possible if abrasive slurry movement was the proximal means of drilling)
- some other organic drill bit (e.g., bird teeth, fish teeth, etc)
- pressure flaked micro-drills (but where are they? cf. Chumash micro-drills, which are hyperabundant)
- sea urchin spines? Someone has already written a thesis on this topic and they don’t work. Or do they?
- drift iron (possible, but 4,000 BP examples are less likely to be iron, of course)
Surprisingly, we didn’t resolve the question in the previous comments section. But I do think it is worth thinking and talking about this some more. Some kind of tool was used to make hundreds of thousands of sub-mm holes in shell and stone. Is it, as Jesse suggests, a kind of craft specialization highly concentrated in space at sites as yet unknown? Is it the result of use of as-yet-unknown technology, especially non-durable technology? Feather drills, anyone?
Future lines of inquiry that occur to me include:
- experimental programmes to define the art of the possible. Can one perhaps punch a hole through? The picture above clearly shows mostly bi-conical holes. However, I’ve also seen a lot with very cylindrical holes.
- more literature review is needed, per Jim’s comment in the previous thread. This should come from NW Coast but also globally.
- can either the shell or the stone in these beads be sourced or characterized to isolate raw material distributions? What’s the state of the possible in this regard?
- the beads are not just drilled with tiny holes, they are usually (in my experience), extremely flat. What kinds of shell are they mad from that allows for this? Are they also ground on their faces?
- dating a random sample of, say, 10 of the Sechelt beads would be interesting to see if they tightly cluster in time or (perhaps unlikely) they represent several centuries worth of bead making/accumulation.
Small bead manufacture is a several thousand year long tradition in the Gulf of Georgia. It seems remarkable we know so little about these tiny artifacts with such a large story to tell. One place to start is with how these beads were made; we also need insight too into how they were worn (blankets? robes? hair?). Answers to these would promote understanding into how they were deposited, and both of these questions might then also lay a firmer platform for whether we should indeed be interpreting them as evidence for “cultural complexity.”
So brainstorm time, in the comments, everyone welcome!