In the following chapters, I will unfold some of the wonders in ancient bead production. Don't in any way take this as a scientific text. However, it is allowed to be inspired.
Since the time of the mysterious Indus Valley civilization, the process of bead making involved division of labor and specializations in the various stages of manufacture. For a single craftsman, it is not expected to work through all the steps of making a bead. These stages are:
Procuring of the material
In some cases, all five steps would be separated. In other cases varying from place to place and time to time, an artisan might master more of the skills. This division of bead labor reaches back to the ancient Harappan culture 2500 BC. It points at
the world's first urbanism in the sense that civilization requires a division of labor.

Let us start with observing the surface of the bead and end in the hole. Ancient beads develop on the surface a kind of tarnish called patina. Basically, there are two kinds of patina: One made of time and earth and the other by time and human skin. First, we will look at what I have called the sweat of earth. This patina forms over decades and is a result of soil, dirt and temperature differences causing a chemical reaction on the surface of the stone bead.
Excavation patina on ancient beads
Excavation patina is the term for the kind of patina a bead will get, not from wearing, but from being buried in the ground for centuries. The patina can be divided into two types: The one that is created by the beads contact with the earth and another more subtle shine made through the beads contact with air in for thousands of years! The last one is observed in burial casket beads. The first kind of patina I have chosen to call the sweat of Earth.
Three kinds of earth - acidic, alkaline or neutral PH-value
There are essentially three types of soil where beads can sleep their often millennia-long sleep: Alkaline, Acidic or PH-neutral soil

Three different kinds of sweat
The final appearance of an ancient stone bead is a product of three kinds of sweat:

The sweat of human effort
The sweat from generations of human skin
The sweat of the Earth

Displayed below you can see a beautiful ancient agate eye bead. The white and yellow colors are only on the surface of the bead. In this case, I think you will agree with me that the outcome is impressive! This clouding is probably caused by minerals like calcium,  leeching into the surface of the bead during the long time it was buried in an often moist ground with a PH value either below or above 7. It is rare that a bead gets more beautiful by the contact with the sweat of the earth.


25 * 10 mm

A mysterious colored agate Eye Bead.

Here you can observe some more ancient beads that have been colored by the soil. Note the whitish dots on the surface of the bead. Thy have not contributed to the beauty of the beads,



Below is a photo of a large carnelian bead. This bead could easily be categorized as a new one, were it not for the discoloring signature left by the embrace of resting for hundreds of years in the acidic soil:


Etched  Burmese carnelian bead with oil & gas patina
Displayed below you can see an etched elongated carnelian bead from the lower part of the Kachin state in Burma. Strong PH-values do not make the intense white coloring of the surface. In this case, a combination of oil, gas, and pressure has done the job.


63 * 10,5 mm

Burma is a land full of natural resources such as oil and gas, and therefore we here find quite a few ancient beads with the discoloring showed above.
Excavation beads found in PH-neutral surroundings
In a case of a bead resting in soil with a PH-value below or above 7, there will be a clear chemical evidence on the surface of the beads meeting with the ground. Even if it is not colored, as shown in the above-displayed beads, the delicate and subtle grooves made in the polishing process will slowly vanish as time goes by. In a case of beads which have been sleeping in PH-neutral soil or even much more so in sand, the surface of the beads will look like they were made yesterday! Then only one thing can determine whether the beads have been made a thousand years ago or recently is the sheen of the bead and the quality and nature of the artistry. Even beads who have been in a PH-neutral sand are different from newly made ones. They have a softer shine, a softer reflection when seen in an intense source of light, especially sunlight.

Burmese Sulemani agate bead

Displayed above is a wonderful ancient Burmese bead who has been found in the sandy earth in Matehtilay, Maline in Burma. Most of Burma has acidic ground. Lower Burma has some small areas with alkaline earth. However, the middle part of Burma, like Matehtilay has a big area where the sandy soil has a neutral PH-value. In this case, the only give away of the true age of the bead is its soft sheen/patina and craftsmanship.
PH- map of Myanmar


Red = acid, blue = alkaline, yellow = neutral

The beads displayed above has together with the beads displayed below been found in the yellow area.
In such environment, even the air surrounding the beads will not affect them.

Click on picture for larger image

Excavation patina
If a bead has been buried in a PH- neutral ground or in a safe place like a clay pot and a place with no minus temperatures, it can be difficult to see whether the bead is old or new. But still, the contact with time, air with changing humidity and temperature will create a very subtitle kind of more 'soft' shine -patina in a stone bead.


This is
an excavated casket of beads from the Harrapan culture. Note the shine of the white and the brown bead. They look like they were new. But they are not! It often takes an expert look to distinguish between the shine of a newly made bead and the "dusty" patina of an ancient excavated bead. The etched bead shown below has original excavation patina. This patina is hard to display on website pictures.

Hexagonal carnelian bead

Often these excavated beads have never or only briefly been worn.  Often they were placed in burial caskets in graves signifying the social position of the deceased and/or acted as a talisman or even currency in the afterlife. They could also be placed in the center of Buddhist stupas as relics meant to sanctify and purify the construction.

Cracks made by a thousand cold winters
If an agate bead has been 'lucky' to 'sleep' for hundreds of years in areas where the temperature goes below zero during winter the moisture in the bead will make small circular cracks in the surface of the bead. This is due to the expansion of the water molecules when they turn into ice. This beautiful sign of age is only to be seen in beads from the Himalayas and Afghanistan and other places with frost in the winter. Beads that have dwelled in areas with hotter climates will not display these marks of age. The appearance of these cracks will also depend on the hardness and 'porousness' of the stone. A dense agate stone bead with less water inside will even survive the winters of the Himalayas without these cracks.


Bhaisayaguru beads from Afghanistan with beautiful cracks

Nowadays these cracks are also made by cunning craftsmen by letting new beads shift back and forth from a microwave oven to a freezer several times.

Now take a close look at this Dzi bead from Taiwan:


On the surface of the above bead you will note many small artificially made indentations designed to imitate ancient frost patina. But the cracks are not circular. This bead is a true fake! Also, note the bead's dusty sheen. Due to their astronomical value, Dzi beads are the most commonly faked beads.  

Old beads develop a patina, not only from the meeting with mother earth. Another important type of patina is a result human sweat causing a chemical reaction with the surface of the stone bead.
The polishing of a bead is not finished the moment it leaves the tumbler or the polishing stone of its maker. Then the human skin takes over the job. The human body hands over the bead from generation to generation like a relay running in slow motion. In this way the final look becomes a never ending process facilitated by the human skin acting as a soft abrasive. Beads have most probably in all ancient cultures since the Neolithic period been a focal point of magic power. In the times, well before religion got organized, every clan had a shaman.
Shamanic sweat & rechargeable talismans
The shaman served as a facilitating and negotiating link between the mostly invisible spirit world and the mundane world of ordinary people. The wearing of beads was in this context a religious protective act against predatory spirits in an animistic constructed world full of spirit entities living in caves, mountains, waterfalls, and trees. Later the shaman was transformed or substituted into a holy man or a priest. In all the traditions where beads have magic powers, the bead has to be worn directly in contact with the skin and preferably close to the human heart. Therefore we see a lot of ancient beads with a surface colored by the contact of human skin. Of course, not only shamans or holy men but also people from lower strata's of society wore beads. However, the commonly used term for mines or beads in India, Babagoria or Baba Ghori, which means holy man's bead, indicates that beads in ancient India primarily was used by religious leaders. An ancient scripture from the Gupta period, Vijjalagga, states that the value of a bead is enhanced by wearing. (Indian Beads, Shantaram B. Deo p.15) The notion that a bead has gained more 'holy capital,' if it has been worn by a Sufi, Buddhist or Hindu saint, as compared to excavation beads, is strong among collectors even today.

These statements gives in a symbolic thinking brain only meaning if the wearer of the bead has good karma, which starts a karmic ping pong effect between the wearer and the bead: The holy man vibrates with good energy which is absorbed by the bead - the bead then vibrates with spiritual energy which then in return is absorbed by the wearer. It is in this context I have coined the wording: Rechargeable Talisman.


RB 8    - 18 * 13 mm - Hexagon
Super ancient Proto Elamite bead -
charged with spiritual DNA since the beginning of the bronze age.

A human polishing process stretching over generations
However, one human life in contact will not do the work. It takes several generations of human wearing before the beads surface gets this almost skin like shine. Just give yourself a meditative break to look in awe at the bead displayed above. Beads do believe in reincarnation.

On the magnificent ancient banded agate bead displayed below, you can observe how generations of wear has softened the bead.
This patina or soft sheen on a bead is a true royal sigh of age. It cannot be faked. Also, note the edges of the small crack on the right side of the bead. This is an important signature of true age in a stone bead. Like water at the ocean polish stones so does the continuous meeting of human skin and bead. There are ritual fireplaces in India where the job of keeping the fire alive has been handed over from Guru to a student for countless generations. In the same way, it is easy to imagine - especially in the time machine called India - that there are stone beads out there, that has been carried on human bodies since they were born in the cradle of civilization!


That makes beads, not only the oldest art form, but also the oldest continuously used and almost non-changing art form in human history. What I mean to say is: Neolithic people from 8000 years ago were wearing the stone bead below I am wearing now in this moment. Is that is not inspiring awe, nothing will.

Now to the contrast. It can be difficult to display in a photo on a website, but the shine on the Luk Mik bead shown below is new. I guess you can observe the difference.


New bead

Below is another new bead. The surface is shining bright. It has not been softened by the contact of human skin and wear and tear. You can observe how the surface is acting like a mirror:

New bead

If you compare this beads with the one displayed in just before, you can observe the difference in the reflection level. The ancient beads do not shine like a mirror in the same way as the new ones.

Ancient bead, worn by generations of human beings

To fake the soft shine of an old bead you will sometimes encounter beads that have been sand-polished in an attempt to make them look old:


It is quite obvious that this is a fake bead. Even this photo can show it.
One must always examine the patina of an old bead very carefully. This patina is very tough to duplicate. It is also important to look into the hole and the surroundings of the hole.

Now we come to the actual process of making the stone beads. In the early stages of bead making, it was a difficult thing to produce a bead. Hence a beautiful bead was a rare thing and most probably reserved for the upper segments of society. But with the inventions of new bead producing technologies like the polishing bag and the diamond drill stone beads became more familiar and with this commonness, they started a journey from the social pyramid top to the bottom. They became a part of the middle-class culture and finally landed in the poorest part of society. Today the tradition of stone bead making and the digging for raw agate is kept alive by the Bheel's (or Bhil's) with the simplest tools. The Bheel's are India's largest tribal community, by Gandhi called the Adivasi, the 'pure ones'.

The Bheel's are the aboriginals of India. They were there before the Vedic, Arian settlement. They are most probably descendants of the original Indus Valley people. One could say that the Bheel's simply went on a social de-route together with their beads: from the greatness of one of the most mysterious and affluent ancient cultures in the world to being casteless, outcast, despised by their new Vedic rulers. As mentioned elsewhere on, there probably
is a link between the Buddhist love for stone beads down to the Indus love for the same art.

The types of stones used for beads are classified in different and often contradictory ways. Geologists, mineralogists, gemologists and archaeologist may give four different answers when asked about a certain type of stone. This confusion is easy to observe on the net.
Microcrystalline Silicates
However agate, chalcedony, carnelian, chert, flint, jasper, chrysoprase, sard, and onyx together make up a class of closely related - in many cases mineralogically identical - sedimentary rocks called microcrystalline silicates. All are principally composed of microscopic crystals of quartz that formed when silica chemically precipitated out of an aqueous solution. Visually, however, microcrystalline silicates are so highly variable that they defy any complete classification.

The primary factor to take into consideration when looking for bead manufacturing sites is easy accessibility to the raw material and closeness of possibilities of selling the products on the market. It seems that since ancient times Gujarat in India was the cardinal place to get the right raw material for making beautiful beads.
In the ancient mines of Baba Ghori in Ratanpur, Gujarat the mines are dug 30 to 35 feet down till the layers of carnelian or agate is reached. The blocks of stone weigh one to two pounds. They are brought to the surface and chipped right on the spot. As mentioned the Bheel's are still today 'hunting' for stones in the major mines of Gujarat, India. These mining places and the tradition itself have been here since the Indus Valley days!

An ideal bead stone is not easy to 'find', so a lot of debris in the form of flakes and stones cracked in unfortunate ways will be seen in such places. Such bead junkyards can be thousands of years old! However, these areas were not left undisturbed. They were recycled for the purpose of making smaller beads.
One of the methods for obtaining these stones was searching for them in eroding cliffs. Another was to put a fire close to a cliff and then throw water on the heated cliff. The sudden cooling would then make the heated surface crack apart. A third way is to look for them in river beds. At this stage, flakes are struck from the nodules to determine the quality of the stone. The best-collected agate pieces were then put in the sun several times often over several months to remove the moisture in the stone. After this drying had been completed, some of the stones would be chosen for further artificial heat treatments. As you can see in the Sulemani bead chapter, there have been different heating techniques to procure different types of beads. The initial heat treatment after the sun drying is done in terracotta vessels or simple pit kilns and is intended to remove the remaining moist. After this process, it becomes easier to flake the stones since moist in the stones tends to make the flaking more unpredictable.



These rough-outs were found on ancient sites, but they could as well have been found in modern day Cambay in Gujarat, India. Raw stones were in antiquity sawed by hand and then chipped in shape with hammers made of water buffalo horns in a hammering process called inverse, indirect percussion (Kenoyer 1986). An iron stake or another stake of hard material is placed in the ground at an angle of around 45 degrees. The artisan sits on the ground with one knee controlling the stake. In the left hand he holds the stone and with the right, he is softly striking the bead so that it is colliding with the stake. In this way, the bead maker can chip off small flakes without breaking the stone itself. This process would take around 3 to 4 hours. Before iron was available copper was used and before that maybe even deer antlers. Rough shaping flaking areas are also quite distinctive and easy to identify. Today the sawing is mostly done with electrically powered blades.

In ancient stone beads we can often observe that the design in the raw material itself played a major role in the decisions on how to shape the bead. That implicates that even the miners were looking out for possible stone patterns that at a later stage could be of interest as a central motif in an extraordinary bead. In this way, the beauty of the natural stone patterns was revealed by their makers right from the beginning of the process.

Urban expansion and the hunt for the outstanding bead
The ancient artisans, especially the Indus people, went to great efforts to obtain exotic stones for making beads of different colors, shapes, and sizes. Especially at the end of the Indus culture in North India itself and the beginning of the Classical period towards the first millennium B.C. India's Urban Revolution on the Gangetic Plains created a demand for the outstanding bead as it could serve as an artistic reflection of the growing self-awareness that was the by-product of modern city life. Bead making became in this period patronized by Kings, priests, and merchants and hence it flourished in the cultural richness of patterns, colors, and exotic material.
The outstanding bead displayed below from Rakhigarhi is an example of this hunt for the urban exotic and rare:


Beads are designed in almost every shape within the limits of the available technology and the raw material. In one end of the spectrum we can find beads that just are picked up stones that have been tumbled and holed:



But outstanding beads will always bear witness of an artistic intelligence and effort as you can see in this crystal tiger bead below:


In very rare cases the artisans were composing beads through the process of cementing different types of stones with different patterns together:

15 * 6,5 mm
Click on picture for larger version

How to
liberate the dormant beauty in a stone
As mentioned the motif was creating form and form was creating the motif.

21 * 19 * 13 * 6 mm

As you can see in the displayed Indus Valley bead, symmetry played an important role in choosing/ creating the shape of the bead. In this bead the human-made shape is following the natural design in the stone.  One could say that the best stone beads actually are pieces of art  like this little bead displayed below:

11 * 10 * 3 mm

Often you can also find the golden angle in the motives as it is the case in this Indus bead

17 * 14 * 4 mm

In the
Magic Eye Beads the eye is almost always placed in the symmetric middle:


28 * 19 mm

or it can be placed in the golden angle position:

24 * 10 mm

The design could also take the forms of the human body into consideration. This outstanding long agate bead has been shaped in such a way that one side is polished flat  in a bow form that makes the long bead follow the shape of the body:


83 * 12 * 8 mm

Below you will find illustrations of a few of the most typical bead forms.


Long Bicone

Hexagonal Tube

Round Tube



 Cylinder / Lenticular

Round tabular



Here you will find more detailed illustrations of bead forms borrowed from the book, The beads from Taxila, by Horace Beck

Click on pictures for larger versions



Click on pictures for larger versions


The artisans who polished the stone beads were different from the ones that were digging the agate out from the mines and from the ones that were chipping and rough shaping the beads.


Hand grinding of beads

Neolithic hand grinding stone

In ancient times many beads were broken in the complicated drilling process. Therefore the polishing of the bead was done after a successful drilling of a hole. The polishing process before 800 AD was done by hand on different grinders, starting with siltstone or quartzite and finalizing the work on a wooden surface. In this time-consuming process, finer and finer abrasives made of agate dust or other useful materials were used. To grind a single large bead could in ancient times take up to 5 days. Today the same process with modern machines will take 5 minutes.

21 * 8 * 6,5 mm

The uneven surface of the Indus Valley bead displayed above shows a polishing technique with very rough abrasives.


Tumbling - bag polishing of beads 800 A.D.

Around 800 AD the smart Indians invented a new way of polishing beads. Before that time every bead was shaped through hand rubbing or by the unknown Persian technique. Now the bead makers started to polish the beads in several numbers by putting them into a goatskin bag with water and agate or jasper dust. Two men then rolled the bag between them on the floor for several days. 



Together with the invention of the diamond drill in the second century BC bag polishing was paving the way for mass production of beads. But mass production always comes with a price to pay.


55 * 13 mm

Displayed above is a large red Jasper bead. This old bead has been polished in a tumbler. The bead maker has, in this case, allowed the tumbling to create the form of the bead. The uneven and unintended design indicates a lack of artistic effort in shaping the bead. Displayed below is another bead with a typical 'tumbled design'. Note the soft corners of the bead.


Here is a non-tumbled bead with more sharp edges:


17 * 11 mm

The time-consuming process of hand rubbing the beads had one advantage that was lost with the bag polishing: The hand shaped beads can display edges and sharp designs like you can see in the beads displayed below:

12 * 11 mm

The same is the case with Zoomorphic, human and other distinctive designed beads; they would lose their shape in a tumbler.


23 * 8 * 4 mm
Ancient carnelian roman/greek sword bead

Of course, the hand-polishing of beads did not disappear. However, the hand-polished beads got great competition from the mass producing 'new' tumble technique. Here you can see a multi-faceted carnelian bead from the British period:

11 mm

The sublime Mauryan bead polishing
The following hypothesis needs to be further validated. It is my own guess work. In the Mauryan period, bead polishing reached a grand climax using today unknown and lost techniques for polishing also known for similar treatment bestowed on its pottery and monuments.
The Mauryan polish on agate and carnelian beads is perhaps unrivaled in any other period in history. We have no independent evidence as to how this polish was imparted on the beads, but it probably was not far from the one used in polishing the famous pillars on which the edicts (of Ashoka) were carved...
(Indian Beads - Shantaram B. Deo p.14)


Ashoka's four lions - Museum in Sarnath

These Ashoka Lions were erected on 15 meter
tall pillars everywhere in Ashoka's vast Empire.

Today we know that the marvelous sandstone lions displayed above most probably are made by Persian craftsmen. The style is, also according to the text shown in the museum, Persian. The unusual polishing technique
must be Persian too. The Mauryan capital Pataliputra was an imitation of Persepolis. Most probably the rise of the Mauryan Empire was founded on an alliance between stray Persian military units after Alexander's occupation and destruction of the Persian Empire and rebellious fractions of Indian society. In this context, it is worth remembering that Chandragupta Maurya himself was a low-cast person in an alliance with the famous Brahmin Chanakya. In this way the first rise of a new super culture after the demise of the vast Indus Culture was a product of the creative trails of destruction made by Alexander the Great and his armies. The Mauryan empire was in this way created with the help of cultural rubles from Persia laid as foundation stones, making a cultural synthesis between the best of the Persian and Indian culture. This short historical extrapolation becomes interesting in this context of beads due to the meeting of the sublime Persian (and now lost) polishing techniques with the advanced tradition of bead-making in India.

The Rakhigarhi late Indus beads are the best example of this blossoming of cultural hybrid artisans skills.

I have to laud the mysterious Indus Valley people. They invented a method of heat treatment to enhance the color of the agate. Still today these ancient techniques are performed in Cambat in Gujarat. After the initial drying and heating processes as described in the chapter, Mining, and collecting of raw material, further heating processes will be done to alter the colors in the stone. This takes place after the bead has been formed into a roughout and even after the drilling of the hole. Beads are here sorted out according to design, color, and potential color and then put into different clay pots and placed in small rectangular low walled brick enclosures. Then ashes and cow or goat dung is placed all around the pots and the whole thing is turned on fire at the same time to avoid thermal shock. The agate is then very slowly heated to a temperature around 340 degrees Celsius. Again the cooling down has to be done slowly to prevent undesired cracks in the stones. Improper heating will invariably result in cracked beads. Even during a perfect heating process a lot of unwanted cracks will occur. The whole process is therefore monitored by a highly skilled supervisor, who has learned his craft from his father in an unbroken generation-chain right down to ancient times. No wonder you have to write your father's name in a visa application for India.
Cooked or uncooked agate beads
However, not all agate will be heat treated. After being dug out the agate is divided into two types, those which should and those which should not be heat treated for color enhancement. If the agate displayed a beautiful and translucent shine in itself, it was not heat treated. Such a bead you can see below. These agate beads are often referred to as 'uncooked'.


17 * 14 * 6 mm

From agate to carnelian through heat
It was especially agate from Cambay in India that had the ability to transform into carnelian. Here you can see the typical color of the carnelian from Cambay:

Cambey carnelian

The reason for the Indian Ratanpur agates ability to transform into carnelian is the high content of iron oxide in the stone. The rusty color of the iron oxide makes the gray agate reddish through heating.
The heat from the fire transforms the agate into a beautiful brownish or reddish orange stone with often fascinating surface patterns.


25 * 6 mm

Agate stones with relatively uniform porosity will display a uniform color after enhancement. However, the uniformity of agate also depends on how uniform the concentration of iron is in the bead. It seems that the Indus people tended to prefer non-translucent carnelian beads with an even color like the one you can see here:

 27 * 9 mm

Often it could take up to ten rounds of heating to achieve the ideal carnelian bead. The deep red color you can observe in the carnelian beads on this link was considered top quality.
The making of sardonyx beads
Agate with alternating bands of porosity will also display different color bands after the treatment. This variety of agate with its different bands from red, orange and even white is called Sardonyx:

Uncooked banded Agate versus Sardonyx


Below you can enjoy a stunning translucent sardonyx bead:

34 * 8 mm
Click on picture for larger version

I have never seen a bead with such natural blood red color. One of the most beautiful translucent bead in my collection!

The history of carnelian production
This invention of transforming gray agate into carnelian is ancient. We can find heat treated carnelian as far back as the Neolithic period:

Neolithic disk bead from Sahara, Africa

Here in these very Early Indus Valley beads we can observe a beautiful blood like the color of carnelian:


As we go back in history, we go from science to magic. We do not know what kind of magic the carnelian beads had for the Indus people, but written text from the contemporary Mesopotamia states that carnelian with its deep red color was related to blood purifying and health.

Bhaisayayguru sulemani bead

The elaborate treatment that turned this bead into what in India is commonly known as a Sulemani agate bead was most probably invented by the Indus Valley people more than four thousand years ago. Banded brown/black and white agate is very rare in natural form. Most agate is in its raw form whitish or grayish like you can see here in this 'uncooked' Indus Valley bead:


Maybe this bead was made before the invention of heat treatment of beads... Or maybe the creators just liked the translucent whitish shine of this stone. To get an onyx bead as the brown and white banded Bhaisayaguru stone you see in the first picture, the Indians began soaking the agate stone into either oil, honey or sugar water. The sugar is absorbed by the darker and/or more porous layers, but not by the denser white layers. The heating process caramelizes the sugar turning the porous layers either black or brown as you can see in this bead:


However, as always, there is a price to pay. The transformation of agate into onyx tends to spoil the translucent shine of a bead. It is rare to come across a bead with translucent bands with black stripes. Maybe that is why the Indus people chose not to treat a wonderful bead with translucent bands with white stripes like the one you can see here:



The alteration into Black Onyx
More than 2000 years ago a new technique enabled the bead makers to go one step further. They discovered that if a sugar soaked stone was placed in sulphuric acid, the sugar would carbonize, making a beautiful black color instead of the brown. Often this intentionally enhanced banding was amplified through a technique of oxygen deprivation during the heating process. The result of this you can see here:


In this period India was predominantly Buddhist. Maybe that is why the black or brown sulemani onyx bead is the most wanted prayer bead for Buddhist all over the world even today. Read more about heat treatment of beads in the section Sulemani Beads.

The decoration on the ancient bead displayed below was made with soda.


This process is called etching. The etching of beads has been known since the Indus Valley and Harappan Civilization, dated to 2500- 1500 BC. Under the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, the Mauryan Period, dating from 300 BC to 100 AD the culture of etched beads reached its quantitative peak. The etched beads on this page are predominantly from this time-period. From Chandragupta Maurya's grandson, Ashoka The Great (274 BC) India was ruled by Buddhism. Still today the etched beads are especially loved by the Buddhist.


In the illustration above you will see an Indus Valley bead with an original, natural pattern. The bead below is artificial colored as an attempt to mimic the natural patterns in the Indus bead. The tradition of etching beads rose as a consequence of the desire to make beads with unusual and beautiful designs. Since it is hard to find and 'carve out' natural and beautiful patterns of stone one could make a shortcut by intentionally enhancing the banding and/or etching patterns into the bead. The technology of bead etching was invented in the Indus Valley period.

17 * 5 mm


Above you enjoy a unique and perfect translucent agate with natural banding from the Indus Valley Civilization 3000 - 1500 B.C.  It was found
in 1942 in Harappa, (Pakistan).

When you look at the etched copy below and compare it with the Indus bead above, it is weird to imagine that the market value of the etched 'copy' is higher than the original un-etched Indus bead.


But the science of 'etching' soon went beyond imitating natural patterns. After some time the artisans developed symbolic and religious signs that went far beyond what patterns in stone could express:


The 'etching' itself is done by putting soda on the surface of the bead. The soda penetrates the surface and leaves an almost indestructible smooth white line. Already in ancient time, these etched beads became the top of the pop. They were traded all over the ancient world.


Often color alteration and etching went together as displayed in the etched, black ball bead above.

The hole of an ancient bead is an important way to recognize and classify a bead. The drilling process is the most critical step in the art of bead making. The first rule is: make it or break it! Many ancient sites bear witness to all the attempts of making a bead littered like waste around the artisan's workshop. In consequence of the danger of breaking the bead in the manufacturing process, the bead's hole was drilled just after the bead's roughout has been fashioned. Otherwise, the artisan could have faced the tragedy of breaking a full polished bead he maybe had used a month to work on.
The making of a bead hole
As in the example shown below the hole were drilled from both sides to avoid cracking either of the bead's apexes.


In the above picture of ancient crystal beads, you can clearly see the joints in the center of each bead. In this translucent golden carnelian bead you can see an example of an extreme joint:


The opening of the hole - the aperture - is also an important part of the bead's secret story. If this section of the hole is not concentric, it could indicate that the hole was hand drilled, like the bead displayed in the picture below.


If the opening of the hole is perfectly round, it usually indicates the help of some kind of machinery, like a bow drill for example. Normally. A big hole denotes a very old bead. In ancient days, arcane drilling technology made it difficult to make small holes and the bead strings, made out of natural materials, were made thicker so that they would not break easily.



Holes shaped by generations of strings
When a bead has been worn on a string for several generations, the hole will slowly be polished over time. If the stone is relatively soft or the string is made out of a hard material, it can result in the kind of oval shape seen below:


Due to the string, the hole can also develop a triangular shape:


This bead also shows the polishing effect beads have on each other when put together on a string. The ends of the above bead have been polished flat due to centuries of coexistence on the same string.
The importance of the hole in the verification of a beads age
If we once again take a closer look at the bead with the triangular hole, it is evident that the hole is rough and edged. Most probably it is because the bead is a fake. An ideal bead hole should look like this:


In the smooth surface on the inside of the hole we find the actual signatures of age. Now take a look at the bead displayed below. Look closely at the hole... Is it smooth or not... Sometimes it looks like the surface of the bead is old. But when you look closer at the surroundings of the hole it is not smooth at all:


In the picture below you will see one of my oldest beads.  It is from the Indus Valley culture, 3000 - 1000 BC:


Especially the Indus Valley bead culture made perfectly straight and beautiful holes. Here are some more Indus Valley bead holes to be enjoyed:



Here you will see perfect holes made by one of the world's first bead makers! In reality. it is very difficult to decipher a bead's age and origin from just a single characteristic. This is often especially true for the ancient beads of Greater India since they were exported over large distances. A bead is very easy to carry and goes wherever a human being goes. Furthermore, Greater India was the melting pot of a huge variety of different cultures and societies which had been coexisting side by side for millennia. All of these cultures used beads, but their bead-making technology was not identical. Some cultures like the Harappan produced far more intricate beads than many of the cultures that followed.


Drilling technique of Neolithic beads
The Neolithic beads were produced with the simplest tools! Here you can see the drills used for the pecking of the holes. The pecking was done from both sides of the bead.




Most beads from the Neolithic period are not too long. When you look at the drills above it gives sense that the beads were mostly tabular:


It has not been possible to replicate the ancient Neolithic way of making holes. On the archeological sites we find a lot of broken beads that tells us that this kind of bead making also was difficult for the Neolithic people.
Indus Valley bead holes
Pecked bead holes can also be seen here in these very early Indus Valley beads.  (Around 3000 BC)


In the bicone carnelian agate beads below from the early Indus Valley period (Around 2500 BC), one can observe how the beads, from the flat tabular design, have started to grow in length. This, of course, makes the bead hole more difficult to make. The pecking hole in these beads has taken shape like a rough hour glass:


Click on picture for large version

onger holes in longer beads
Soon after the time of these beads, in the Copper Bronze age, the technique of drilling longer holes was developed.  This development began in West Asia and the Indus Valley.

The bow drill was invented as early as 4000 B.C. It is still in use in the time machine called India!
The drilling part was from the beginning of the Bronze age 3000 B.C. changed from chert to bronze.
In Chanhu-Daru, an early Indus Valley site, excavators found bronze drills about 4,8 cm.
(Indian Beads, Shantaram B. Deo p.9)


Old school bow drill

With the invention of the bow drill, the tabular disk beads disappeared.
In the artistic strive for the sublime, it became uninteresting to create flat beads. In the Bronze Age the bow drill started the evolution of longer beads with longer holes. It was now time for the long slender tubular beads to take over and fascinate the artisans and their customers. Here is a tubular carnelian Indus bead:

Left hole

25 * 7 mm

Right hole

The holes in this bead were made with one of the new types of drills that were invented at that time. It could be a stone drill made of jasper or chert; it could have been a drill made of copper with abrasives at the end of the drill. In the bead, displayed above, the left and the right hole are not of the same diameter. It could indicate that the drills used for the perforation only could drill half of the way through the bead before they were destroyed in the process.  However, the drilling of longer holes was still very difficult and time-consuming.

Drilling technology and length of the beads
The above example shows clearly how the drilling technology itself plays a significant role in the shaping of a bead. The artistic drive will always be to create something outstanding, something that surpasses what has been done before. That means, seen in relation to the development of  drilling technology, that inventions of new drilling methods will spur a development of longer and longer beads. That is exactly what happened in the Indus culture of Harappa.
In Harappa, the artisans started out with the simplest technique, just pecking at it and popping a hole through a relatively flat tabular bead. Then we can observe drilling with tapered stone drills that were just a little harder than the bead stone itself. In the end, the Harappans developed exquisite drilling techniques that were especially designed to perforate long bead stones. The Harappans special drilling technique was kept as a secret. This allowed them to make beads that were longer and thinner than any other contemporary culture. These long, slender delicate beads were loved all over the contemporary world. The favorite material for these beads was carnelian in uniform color. In the Mesopotamian Royal Cemetery of Ur, 2450 BC we find a lot of these beads.

Ernestite drills
One of the reasons behind the beautiful Indus beads can be found in the use of the extremely rare stone Ernestite for drilling. Ernestite, a term coined by Kenoyer, is a highly rare stone just a little harder than the other microcrystalline silicates due to the presence of titanium.  This rare stone most probably originated from Gujarat and when

The invention of the diamond drill
Around 600 BC the diamond drill was invented in India. With the diamond drill, it was now possible to drill a hole more than 200 times faster than before! From being a very long and often unsuccessful procedure, it became a piece of cake to drill the bead holes.


A new diamond drilled hole

29 * 4,5 mm

As one can observe in the pictures above the holes became much smaller with the invention of the diamond drill. It also became possible to make much slimmer and large beads due to the small holes.  As a rough thumb rule, one could say that a beads age can be seen in the diameter of the hole. If the hole is large the bead is relatively older.


As you can see on the above photo a thin iron rod is placed on a stick of wood or bamboo. On the end of the iron rod a small diamond is placed. The fitting of the diamond is an art in itself. With this technology it became possible to drill very small holes.

A bead maker from Cambey in
the process of drilling holes

Every time a new machine technology makes it easier to mass produce beads, they begin a journey down the strata's of society. If a certain type of bead gets easy to produce it automatically looses its charm as a talisman for the upper segments of society as it gains momentum as a desirable object for the masses. Only the sublime, the at a given time rare beads will continue their enchantment of the upper classes. In this way, the historical development of new bead producing technologies finally killed the agate bead as a leading object of desire. First of all other materials such as precious stones took the lead and left agate and similar more available stones types such as jasper in the dark.
However, the new machine and other mass producing technologies did not defeat the semiprecious stone beads in a linear process. Here is an example: In the end of the Indus Valley era the hunt for exotic stone bead material counteracted the mass producing trend. As beads became increasingly easier to produce the stone material itself became more and more important. This tendency is clearly demonstrated on this page displaying my late Indus Valley beads.  The artisans also reacted to the challenge of machine technology with their desire to create the sublime to invent more and more sophisticated ways to create beads in odd forms or in forms difficult to make such as for example very long and slender beads. More and more sophisticated ways of etching and artificially coloring of the beads also became an artistic drive that peaked in the creation and development of the marvelous dZi beads.
Today stone beads have again come into the limelight of the sublime. The new entry pass is age. If a bead is ancient it is automatically again restored to its former glory.
Unfortunately, there are many beads out there with false entry passes. 




Contemporary stone beadmaking in Khambat, India: Patterns of craft specialization and organization of production as reflected in the archaeological record
Jonatan Mark Kenoyer, Massimo Vidale and Kuldeep Kumar Bhan

The Important Stone and Metal Resources of Gujarat during the Harappan Period
Randall Law

The beads from Taxilla
Horace Beck




Contact: Gunnar Muhlman -