Historical Archaeology

, Volume 52, Issue 2, pp 301–331 | Cite as

Small Beads, Big Picture: Assessing Chronology, Exchange, and Population Movement through Compositional Analyses of Blue Glass Beads from the Upper Great Lakes

  • Heather Walder
Original Article


As European explorers and displaced native newcomers entered the Upper Great Lakes region during the 17th and 18th centuries, they introduced unfamiliar material types, such as glass beads, that both local and non-local people incorporated into exchange networks and technological systems. Blue glass beads recovered at archaeological sites dating from A.D. 1630 to 1730 and attributed to historically documented peoples, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Tionontate-Wendat, Anishinaabeg, and other groups, were analyzed using a minimally invasive technique, laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). Identified patterns of variation in glass-bead composition reflect the timing and directions of trade among diverse communities, illustrating how a materials-science approach can reveal social and economic outcomes of intercultural interaction and colonialism. Since European-made glass trade beads circulated globally at this time, the results are comparable to those of beads from other regions worldwide for clarifying site chronologies and delineating broader patterns of material exchange.


glass trade beads Upper Great Lakes archaeometry colonialism 


Cuando los exploradores europeos y los nativos desplazados recién llegados entraron en la región de los Grandes Lagos Superiores durante los siglos XVII y XVIII, introdujeron materiales poco habituales, como perlas de vidrio, que locales y forasteros incorporaron en las redes del intercambio y los sistemas tecnológicos. Se han encontrado perlas de vidrio azul en yacimientos arqueológicos de entre 1630 y 1730 d.C., atribuidas a pueblos históricamente documentados, como Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Tionontate-Wendat, Anishinaabeg y otros grupos, que han sido analizadas por medio de técnicas mínimamente invasivas: espectometría de masas con plasma de acoplamiento inductivo por ablación láser (LA-ICP-MS). Los patrones de variación identificados en la composición de las perlas de vidrio reflejan las fechas y direcciones del comercio entre las diferentes comunidades, poniendo de relieve cómo un enfoque basado en la ciencia de los materiales puede arrojar resultados sociales y económicos de la interacción intercultural y el colonialismo. Como las perlas de vidrio fabricadas por los europeos circulaban de forma global en esta época, los resultados son comparables a los de las perlas de otras regiones en el mundo para aclarar las cronologías de los yacimientos y determinar patrones generales del intercambio de materiales.


Les explorateurs européens et autochtones nouvellement déplacés ont, à leur arrivée dans le secteur supérieur des Grands Lacs durant les 17e et 18e siècles, introduit des types de matériaux inhabituels, dont des perles en verre, que la population locale et d’autres ont intégrées à leurs réseaux d’échange et systèmes technologiques. Des perles en verre bleu découvertes dans des sites archéologiques datant de 1630 à 1730 de notre ère et attribuées à des peuples dont la présence dans l’histoire est documentée, y compris les Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Tionontate-Wendat, Anishinaabeg et d’autres groupes, furent analysées à l’aide d’une technique peu infractive, soit la spectrométrie de masse à plasma inductif (ICP-MS) à ablation par laser. Les modèles de variation de la composition des perles en verre identifiés reflètent la chronologie et l’orientation du commerce entre différentes communautés, illustrant ainsi la façon dont une approche axée sur la science des matériaux peut faire la lumière sur les résultats sociaux et économiques des interactions entre cultures et du colonialisme. Puisque des perles en verre d’origine européenne circulaient partout dans le monde à l’époque, les résultats sont comparables à ceux obtenus pour les perles d’autres régions mondiales et permettent de mieux fixer la chronologie des sites et de délimiter des modèles plus vastes d’échange des matériaux.



I am grateful to the many curators and institutions across the Midwest that granted permission to sample glass beads. An early version of this paper was awarded the Student Paper Prize at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 2014, and I thank the award committee and those individuals who provided feedback on my project at that time. Three anonymous reviewers at Historical Archaeology offered detailed technical and qualitative comments that improved this article, and I also thank the editors for facilitating this publication. Special thanks to Laure Dussubieux at the Chicago Field Museum and Sissel Schroeder, my dissertation advisor at University of Wisconsin––Madison. Funding for this project came from a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (BCS-1321751, PI Sissel Schroeder); a Graduate Women in Science, Beta Chapter, Ruth Dickie Grant-in-Aid and Scholarship; a Wisconsin Archeological Society Research Award; the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award; two University of Wisconsin––Madison Vilas Research Travel Grants; and a research grant from the Chicago Field Museum Elemental Analysis Facility.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois UniversityDeKalbU.S.A.

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