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Glass Beads Made in Africa
Part Three, Dry Powder-Glass Beads in Ghana

As opposed to wet-core powder glass beads like Kiffa and Bodom
dry powder-glass beads are made without a core.
Scrap glass is crushed very finely, put into a mold and fired.

This rather small mold (10 cm; 4" across) comes from the Krobo beadmaking village of Sikaben (or Singabin) in southeastern Ghana.

It was made from local clay by the beadmakers themselves.

Part of a broken mold. Note the small depression at the bottom of the cell. Into it will be put a section of cassava leaf stem (above), which will burn out and leave the perforation. Cassava is native to America, and while now universally used in Ghana, it could not have been employed before 1500 or so. Wet-core powdered-glass beads do not use a stick in this manner.

The powdered glass is then poured into the molds. This young worker has filled a large numbers of molds that will be fired later in the day.

He is in the Asante (Ashanti) village of Asamang, where a single family controls the production. They hire others (such as this lad) out to do the actual work.
In other villages, such as Ohwim, each family operates their own beadmaking facilities. When we visited in 1990 there were no less than 60 families at Ohwim making beads. Their beads also seem to be the most common on the market. A testament to a free market. From
Francis 1993.

While dry powder-glass beadmaking is known to have gone on in Nigeria and among the Ewe (who occupy the extreme east of Ghana and much of Togo), most beadmaking today
is found among the Asante of central and northern Ghana and the Krobo of the southeast.

The Krobo once occupied what is known as Krobo Mountain, but were forced off it by the British in 1892. There is evidence of beadworking there, in the form of broken molds and spoiled beads.

Traditionally, Krobo beads have a yellow base and this bead, known as an adjagba, is their hallmark. The stripes are added by poking a stick down the side of the mold and filling the hole with darker glass. During firing, the bead is twisted some (I am not sure how this is done) to twist the stripes. This is a large bead, 39 mm (1,6" long). Doner: Elizabeth Harris.

Everyone we met in Asanteland (9 villages) said that they had learned beadmaking from Osei Kwame or at Dabaa. At Dabaa we were told that Osei Kwame (who had died in 1978) began making beads after having a dream in 1937. Dreams are the origins of many things in Ghana and in 1937 two articles were published describing Asante beadmaking. Though the account cannot be quite right, Osei Kwame was clearly an important teacher and spread beadmaking to many villages.

These are two beads he made. The top one is apparently an attempt to duplicate the beads below.

These beads were made by the Ewe in the far southeast of Ghana. A long mold was carefully filled with layers of glass, producing a tube (often flattened or off-center) after being fired. Beads were cut from the tube and ground on the ends. This laborious work is no longer being done. Yellow is by far the most common color, followed by green.
Red and black (and maybe white) are rare.

How old is this industry? We can look at two lines of evidence. One is archaeological. I know of seven sites from which powder-glass beads have been excavated. Of them, the most closely dated is Adansi Ahinson, dated to 1680-1750 (Francis 1993: 17).

The first historical description of powder-glass beadmaking in Ghana (then the Gold Coast) was by John Barbot (1746: 231), who visited in 1704: "The third sort of false gold, grown pretty common among the Blacks, is a composition which they make of a certain powder of coral glass which they cast." "Coral" here simply refers to a bead.

Thomas E. Bowdich, the first European to travel to the Asante region about 1815 had this to say: "The natives pretend that imitations are made in the country, which they call boiled beads, alleging that they are broken aggrey beads ground into powder and boiled together, and that they know them because they are heavier; but this I find to be mere conjecture among themselves, unsupported by any thing [sic] like observation or discovery."
(Bowdich 1966: 268).

Bowdich must have been insufferable. He tricked his way into leading the British campaign into Asanteland and persuaded the British to colonize the country. His contempt for the natives is palpable in this passage. He also mixed up koli beads and powder-glass beads. He did the same thing for Aggrey beads, throwing writers off the track for a very long time.

Combining these two lines of evidence, a date of at least 1700 is derived. How much earlier than that that dry powder-glass beads were made in Ghana (or to the east) needs more investigation. Certainly, the method currently used with the cassava leaf stem cannot predate contact with America, but some other method may have preceded this one.

Part 1: Bida, Nigeria - Part 2: Kiffa and Wet-Core Beads


Barbot, John

1746 A Voyage to New Calabar, pp. 455-467 in A. and C. Churchill, eds Collection of Voyages and Travels, some Now firÉt Printed from Original ManuÉcripts, others Now firÉt PubliÉhed in English.Vol. 5. London: Linot and Osborn (6 vols.).

Bowdich, T(homas) Edward, edited by W. E. F. Ward
1966 Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee. Frank Cass & Co London. (3rd ed.; original 1819).

Francis, Peter, Jr.
1990 Powder-Glass Beads. Margaretologist 3(1): 9-11
1993 Where Beads Are Loved: Ghana, West Africa. Beads and People Series 2 Lake Placid: Lapis Route Books.


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