- crystalline calcite
- Struthio camelus australis: the Cape Ostrich of Southern Africa
Object ParentsNatural resources that “parent” objects:
Object DomicileSAM-AA 8444
Iziko Archaeology Material Culture Collection
In temporary storage at the Slave Lodge, Central Business District, Cape Town, South Africa -33.9251° S, 18.4205° E
Object OriginCoastal site near Kleinzee, Namaqualand, Northern Cape, South Africa -29.6783° S, 17.0687° E c.18 - 518 CE (2000-1500 years ago)
On this site centuries ago, the six ostrich eggshell beads were crafted by humans out of natural material. Pieces of ostrich eggshell were bitten or broken into smaller, workable fragments. These fragments were pierced with a piece of stone or metal to drill central holes within them. The rough beads were then smoothed and shaped by being grinded against a grooved stone. Throughout their making, the beads shared close interactions with the human body. They were eventually left in the sand where they formed part of a coastal midden - an archaeological refuse heap.
Can you imagine the feeling of thick eggshell rubbing against your teeth? At times your tongue would flick against cold speckled shell and smooth warm enamel, feeling both textures at once. This would have been the sensation experienced by the bead makers who crafted these ostrich eggshell beads many centuries ago. Beads like these six were produced by nibbling or breaking pieces of eggshell into smaller bits, and then grinding these into spherical shapes. The beads were probably made during the Later Stone Age, around 1500 to 2000 years ago. During the immense passage of time from then to now, the six tiny beads have remained intact.
The beads were made at the coast of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape of South Africa. They were carefully manufactured, but some have been left unfinished. This is why the six beads all look so different. While all the beads were punctured, only two of them were shaped and rounded into smooth spheres. These are the ones considered to be complete. The others, which have angular edges and strange shapes, are the ones which did not, perhaps, get the opportunity to perform their function as beads. They were never sewn into garments or worn around necks, nor were they traded between individuals. In fact, the lives of all of the beads have been somewhat interrupted as they were left at the site where they were made, buried in coastal sands. Perhaps the beads were forgotten by their makers, or simply lost in the dark of a moonless night. It is unlikely that they would have been deliberately thrown away as a lot of effort went into their making. Nevertheless, the beads remained in their resting place for hundreds of years as life continued around them.
For as long as they have existed the beads have had a close relationship with human beings and their bodies. In the hands and mouths of humans who lived centuries ago, ostrich eggshells were turned into beads. Then they lay forgotten, out of sight and out of mind. Many years later, in the second half of the twentieth century, human hands found them once again. The six beads were unearthed and taken by the South African palaeontologist Q. B. Hendey who donated them to the South African Museum in 1963. Here, the ostrich eggshell beads were valued for what they reveal of bead manufacturing processes. But what about their value as cultural objects, as objects which have a history of human touch, and as objects that speak to the interactions between people and animals?
Eggshell and its Layers of Meaning: The Story of Six Beads
There are six small, cream-hued beads. They sit together in their museum collection box but are in no way uniform. Two are round and smooth, and the others are angular with sharper edges. The differences between them represent the making of a bead. Before they were beads, they were living, natural material, as they were manufactured from the shells of ostrich eggs. This essay explores the specific story of these beads, as they are suggestive of the intersections between history, humanity and nature. Like the very texture of the beads themselves, this story is multifaceted. And like their shape, some parts of this story are complete, while others are only partially resolved. For now, their meaning will be explored as cultural objects, archaeological objects and as museum objects that have witnessed the changing dynamics of space and time.
The materiality of these objects urge you to touch them. Upon seeing them, you desire to hold them between your fingers to investigate their spots and scratches. For a fraction of a second, the beads resemble pieces of food, crackers perhaps, or bits of hard cheese. You resist the urge to place them in your mouth, for they are now museum objects and have no place there. In their creation, however, the beads have been in mouths before. As larger pieces of eggshell, they were placed between the teeth of their makers to be nibbled down into smaller fragments. The handwritten museum catalogue that describes the beads states that they are an ‘excellent collection of various stages in ostrich eggshell bead manufacture up to final products’. These stages go from blank bead production to perforation and finally to surface finishing. The nibbling they experienced was part of the blank bead production. During the next stage, the beads were shaped and smoothed against grooved stone for their circular form. As all six beads show central perforation but have varying sizes and surface finishing, they illustrate a story of human production. They are like puzzle pieces for an imaginative mind.
The beads all have their own unique characteristics: one has speckles that allude to the original surface of the egg; one is shaped like a diamond rhombus; and one does not seem to resemble eggshell in any way. It is possible that the beads have changed since they were buried, that they have grown more brittle with time. Like their meaning, the physicality of the beads has not stopped changing and shifting. Ostrich eggshell beads have played a crucial role in social dynamics and cultural expression. The archaeologist Robert Bednarik (1997) explains that as objects, ‘their role would have always been non-utilitarian, ideological, emblematic or symbolic’. According to archaeologists like H. J. and Janette Deacon (1999), these beads were gendered objects of adornment made by women. Within different cultural groups, beads had their own unique stylistic characteristics and played an integral role in systems of gift exchange, trade and social security. The beads are thus imbued with cultural significance. They were lovingly and carefully made, lost and became buried. They were later unearthed and placed in a cardboard box in a museum. Here, their intangible and invaluable cultural heritage went unseen. The beads went untouched for years and sat surrounded by other similarly displaced cultural objects. It would seem that museums and systems of archaeology mediated the beads’ physical and symbolic movements throughout space and time. Ultimately, they are poignant objects, for though they are small and delicate, they have a large and resounding story to tell.
The lack of recorded information about the production of archaeological objects means that they may be easily misinterpreted. In researching these objects, I recognise that my voice can become just one more in the historical series of those that are too removed yet all too authoritative. I am also aware that the stories of these beads should not be mine to tell or mine to tell alone. However, I can critically interrogate the systems that allowed for them to be dug up, physically displaced from their resting place and rendered anonymous within a museum collection. Archaeological knowledge has often displayed interpretation as fact, and thus knowledge produced around cultural objects has never been objective or neutral. It is important to acknowledge the limitations of conjecture, as there is a danger in creating absolutisms about the past, particularly when absolutism is impossible. As such, I wish to make transparent that my own questions and ponderings about the beads are products of imagination. Moreover, I believe there is much room for imagination and imaginative thinking in scientific fields, for it already exists there but is never really acknowledged for what it is.
Information pertaining to the particulars of the beads is scarce. I gleaned some assumed information from discussions with archaeological practitioners like Dr Wendy Black of Iziko Museums and Dr Simon Hall of UCT. As archaeological objects, the information that is recorded about them is limited to where they were found, the state they were found in and who they were ‘discovered’ by. Other aspects of the beads’ biographical information is gathered from guesswork and informed estimation. The names and identities of those who made the beads have been lost to memory, as they are absent from institutional records. Moreover, the beads were made between 2 000 and 1 500 years ago, during the Later Stone Age in what is now South Africa. Due to this significant passage of time, the specifics of the beads’ production are impossible to know unless they were somehow recorded at the time of their making. As there are no written records from that time, the only marker that can be given to the makers is that they were indigenous hunter-gatherers or herders who lived nomadically in Namaqualand all those centuries ago.
Recorded institutional information about the beads reveals that they were ‘discovered’ in the Northern Cape of South Africa in a coastal midden – an archaeological refuse heap. Specifically, they were excavated in a site in Dreyers Pan, near the small town of Kleinzee in Namaqualand. As this is a pan site, the location would likely have been a social gathering site for the collection of water. In archaeology, the presence of unfinished beads indicates sites of production that are known as ‘bead factories’. As four of the beads are unfinished, it is likely that this site was a bead factory – the beads were presumably made and left in this same place, buried in the coastal sands. As they are not broken, I wondered why the six beads were left in their unfinished form and why they were left at all. As time, care and effort went into the construction, they should not have been easily discarded. Were they lost in the sand and the darkness of a moonless night? Could they have been flung in a moment of panic? Did their makers flee from some form of danger? It is impossible to know, but it is important to question why they were left ‘unfinished’ and whether we can even be certain that they are indeed unfinished. Is it so strange to imagine an outlier – that their maker maybe preferred a bead shaped like a diamond to one as round as the full moon? Ultimately, the intended lives of the objects have been interrupted, as they never got the chance to be used as beads.
They were unearthed on a dig by South African palaeontologist Q. B. Hendey, who worked as a field geologist in the area. In 1963, in Cape Town, Hendey donated the beads to what was then known as the South African Museum. The beads entered the institutional space of the museum and garnered a new layer of history and biography. It is uncertain exactly when the original dig occurred or how much time passed between Hendey unearthing the beads and his donation of them. It is possible that he simply kept them in his own home for study before passing them on to the museum, a practice not uncommon at the time. Hendey’s involvement and temporary ownership of the beads raise many questions about past practices of archaeological collection, the most nagging of which concerning what drove him to feel a sense of ownership over the beads as their collector. It does no harm to imagine Hendey’s thoughts, actions and interactions with the beads, as this is merely the archaeologist’s authoritative questioning turned back upon the archaeologist. Hendey’s story and that of the beads will forever be connected. Hopefully, though, he will be a footnote in their story rather than the central protagonist.
Progress in archaeological thinking sees objects as things of agency and biography. According to archaeologists Chris Gosdon and Yvonne Marshall (1999), this way of thinking posits that ‘as people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and object are tied up with each other’. Considering the human and animal interactions of the beads can reveal new layers to their narratives. At one point in time, these beads were lovingly crafted by hand and mouth, a procedure of manufacture that requires intimate gestures and interactions between the object and the human. The beads also carry a connection to the animal they came from. Being made of eggshell, the beads were once part of a most cherished object to the mother ostrich, her child. Did she wonder what happened to her egg, was she distressed when it was taken? Perhaps the beads came from shells already broken by birth. Or perhaps the egg was eaten by humans and the remnants of a meal were put to practical use. The beadmaker’s interaction with the ostrich eggs becomes one moment in a historical and persistent lineage of human use of animal products. As eggs before beads, these six objects once sheltered animal life. Perhaps this life never truly left as it became connected to new and other lives.
In layered ways, the eggshell beads speak of potential. They were once an incubator for life and, in human hands, their form was changed. These objects mark the beginning of something larger and promise the adornment of something greater. What would the beads ultimately have become? Would they have been threaded and worn as a necklace, become an intricate decoration on a bag or been sewn into pieces of clothing? Poignantly, the eggshell beads remain somewhat the same in the different stages of their lives. The beads speak of the human endeavour of craftsmanship and adornment. As both egg and bead, they were something small destined to become something more. In my curation of the beads, I wanted to individualise them and make viewers see how they have interacted with multiple histories and varied contexts. My curation placed the beads as stars in an imagined Namaqualand constellation to draw attention to each bead as its own object, but also to show the ways in which they are connected. The curation also makes a visual link to aspects of folklore and spirituality that connect the natural world and material culture, as ostriches were important animals in the everyday and spiritual lives of the communities who made the beads. My curation ultimately proposes a new aspect to the objects’ story.
To conclude, the six ostrich eggshell beads raise many questions and carry many unknowns. These questions reverberate today, as such beads continue to have cultural, historical and national significance. They feature in the tourist imagination of ‘traditionally made’ crafts, taking another form of trade. But is this a celebration of cultural pride and artistic craftmanship or another problematic form of appropriation? Originally made with care and purpose, the beads were lost and, when found, became something new, became decontextualised objects of study. Throughout their existence, the beads have passed through multiple hands and their value has been refabricated time and time again. When considered for what they are – and could have been – it becomes apparent that the story of these beads is dynamic, and it is not over. The six small, lightly coloured objects have undertaken a journey from ostrich egg to bead, from coastal sands to museum collection box. In this journey they have been shaped, abandoned, found and displaced. All of these moments create layers of meaning that are forever held within the objects themselves.
Bednarik, R. 1997. About Ostrich Eggshell Beads. Acta Archaeologica 68: 153–161.
Gosdon, C. and Y. Marshall. 1999. The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology 31(2): 169–178.
Deacon, H. J. and J. Deacon. 1999. Human Beginnings in South Africa: Uncovering the Secrets of the Stone Age. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.
This altern(arr)tive and possibly fictional/embellished route follows the ostrich eggshell beads from their Namaqualand site to Q.B. Hendey’s home in Cape Town and from there to the South African Museum. This route explores the displacement of objects, and questions the collection policies and practices within museums and the fields of study connected to them.
- (Coastal site near Kleinzee, Namaqualand, Northern Cape South Africa) c.18- 518 CE: The ostrich eggshell beads were created and left buried in the Namaqualand sand.
- (Coastal site near Kleinzee, Namaqualand, Northern Cape South Africa) 22-03-1960: Q.B. Hendey unearths the beads from their resting place during a dig.
- (The Hendey private residence, Cape Town, South Africa) 03-04-1960: Hendey brings the beads to his private home where he keeps and studies them for a number of years.
(South African Museum, Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa) 15-06-1963: Hendey eventually donates the beads to the museum once he is finished with them.