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ANCIENT NUBIAN FACE BEADS

THE PROBLEM WITH SUPPOSITIONS


Robert K. Liu, Sage and Tom Holland

F igural mosaic images on beads are among the


most rare of ancient glass. Early Roman Egyptian
face beads of approximately 100 B.C-A.D. 100
represent the most numerous of such ornaments,
perhaps existing in the low thousands and were widely
reduced to the diminutive sizes suitable for marvering
onto or encasing in a face bead ( page 38 ). Composite
mosaic bars with half-face images for theater masks have
been found, but these larger, more complex canes were
never used for beads (Liu 2008b).
distributed through Europe and the Middle East, and Because the Gorgon/Medusa canes are placed into so
are usually regarded as luxury goods. Recent finds place many different shapes of beads (spherical, tabular, barrel,
them in the Crimea, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Nubia, and bulla-shaped), numbering between one for tabular,
and Croatia (Sidebotham et al., 2015), as well as Hungary two to eight face canes per spherical bead and varying
(Liu, pers. comm.). Their most common imagery displays in how they are placed on the bead, with a great variety
full-frontal faces of Medusa as a Gorgon with stylized of surrounds and colors, in addition to other mosaic
snakes as hair, or less often of Medusa as a beautiful imagery, researchers have postulated that Medusa,
woman with luxurious long hair, a necklace and a bust. Gorgon and other canes employed on face beads were
Late Roman face beads, of the fourth/fifth centuries most likely produced as a basic cane by skilled glassworkers
B.C., number less than thirty, occur primarily in in Ptolemaic-Roman Egypt, such as in Alexandria, Egypt,
northern Europe and Russia, but have entirely different the Levant or elsewhere in the Middle East (Henderson
imagery, most likely emperors. The only other cultures 2013, Lankton et al., 2016). These face/Medusa/Gorgon
that also produced figural mosaics are the Javanese canes, whether in large diameter form or reduced by
(Jatim beads of fifth/sixth century A.D., Lankton and pulling while hot into smaller sizes suitable for face
Bernbaum 2007), Thai at Klong Thom (tabular face beads beads, were then distributed to disparate end users,
that may not be mosaics, possibly first to seventh century usually glass beadmakers. Thus the great individual
A.D.), at Bara in Pakistan and potentially somewhere in variation found on early Roman face beads. But there
Afghanistan, based upon two nearly identical beads with has also never been confirmation that face canes were
complex griffin and duck mosaics. an item of trade, although glass tesserae for mosaics or
For those who study such mosaic face beads and beads have been found in such contexts (Andersen and
glass with similar canes, there are major, problematic Sode 2010, Henderson 2013, Neri et al., 2016).
suppositions, since no workshops with such figural While we do not know the size of ancient face canes,
canes have ever been found, nor any face canes used for Brian Kerkvliet (Liu 1989), the first American to make
beads. Some Egyptian glass workshop sites did contain mosaic face canes, used the layering or the hot-strip
mosaic glass/canes (Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994: 27). method for his murrine canes. In one continuous work
However, two larger cane slices depicting the most session of about two hours, he ended with a piece of glass
34 ORNAMENT 40.2.2 017

frequently used Gorgon and Medusa as a woman are in cane approximately three inches in diameter by four
the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art (Liu 2008b: 62, inches long (approximately 7.5 x 10.0 cm), before pulling
1.6 cm high and 2.2 cm diameter) and may be very the rod while hot to a size small enough for application
rare examples of face canes before they were pulled or to face beads, at approximately 0.35 cm diameter.

40_2_Nubian face beads 19_Final.indd 34 1/23/18 4:36 PM


Opposite page: ENLARGED VIEWS OF FOUR INTACT NUBIAN FACE
BEADS: These very clear images show good representations of
Medusa, two as a Gorgon and two as a woman. But in this case, the
women are formed from Gorgon face canes, evident from the
striations of their hair; numbering 8 - 9. The rectangular striations
represent the writhing snakes of Gorgon.
The clarity of their outlines and their precise shapes suggest that these
are geometric rods that were bundled onto or overlaid the face cane
and not hot-layered. These four beads present two treatments of the
basic face cane, all with a black outline around the lower face, with
an additional red lower surround for the Gorgons, as well as a yellow
bust. The red arc represents the blood from her severed head. Gorgon
canes used on spherical face beads very rarely show this feature; out
of over 220 scanned images, there were only two with a blood arc.
The close conformation of the Gorgon faces suggests they are from
the same cane. Gorgon as a woman has flesh-colored glass formed
into a neck and shoulders, with a black line or rod for a necklace,
but they differ somewhat, possibly altered when marvered or
encased onto or into the matrix to form a cane, although both have
9 hair striations. All of the glass of the face, neck and bust have some
degree of uneven pink, although some are more faded.
The use of flesh-colored glass for mosaic face beads is unique, since
all other extant beads have the skin portrayed in white/whitish or
slightly ruddy glass. Could the skin tone of all other beads have
de-vitrified to white from flesh-colored? Probably not. The whitish glass
around each face cane is the same and has deteriorated more than
the other colors of glass. When illuminated at the right angle, these
white, mottled areas are actually cracked or crazed glass.
These similarities strongly point to products of the same glass
workshop, most likely Roman Egypt, possibly Nubian. The transparent
green matrix around the face canes of these Nubian face beads
makes this color the most common for tabular face beads, totaling
44 of 62 tabular beads examined, or seventy-one percent.
Photograph courtesy of and © the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
previously published in Liu (2014: 42).

This page, top to bottom: ROUND TABULAR EARLY ROMAN MOSAIC


FACE BEADS from the Crimea, all with a Gorgon face cane, 1.4 cm
high, 0.4 - 0.6 cm thick; (Liu 2008b, 2014). Burial conditions there
tend to weaken the glass, so one of these broke, revealing that the
transverse, non-tapering perforation resulted from hot-piercing and
not from being formed on a mandrel. With our observation of
similar hot- or rod-piercing in Nubian tabular face beads, this
probably means that all or most tabular face beads are composed
of one face cane encased in a glass matrix, with the perforation
pierced. They all follow the convention of having the eyebrows,
eyes and nose made in one rectangular block, with the mouth a
separate element. The forehead and lower part of the face are also
separate; this has also been observed by Alekseeva (1971). Note
that the right-hand bead is very similar in color to Nubian tabular
face beads, and the lighter glass of the eye/nose/eyebrow block
is clearly evident. Courtesy of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh.
Photographs by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament unless noted.
BROKEN HOT-PIERCED LOZENGE-SHAPED NUBIAN TABULAR FACE BEAD
AND FRONTAL VIEW OF BROKEN NUBIAN TABULAR BEAD OF GORGON
showing distortion of cane and red arc indicating blood of Gorgon’s
severed head, 1.1 cm diameter/23.830c. Note crazed, cracked or
crackled glass around face cane.
BROKEN TABULAR GORGON FACE BEAD VS CLASSIC ROUND TABULAR
GORGON FACE BEAD FROM NUBIA; the latter is deteriorated, but the
stylized rod striations are faintly visible, 1.1 cm diameter/23.788.
35 ORNAMENT 40.2.2 017

INTACT TABULAR NUBIAN FACE BEAD OF GORGON AS A WOMAN,


placed on top of flashlight in attempt to show cracks/23.830c. Note
cracks, grooves on surface, as well as large amount of surface pits.
All photographs of Nubian glass beads are courtesy of the Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston, taken by Robert K. Liu/ Ornament.

40_2_Nubian face beads 19_Final.indd 35 1/23/18 4:36 PM


LOZENGE-SHAPED, ROUND AND SQUARE TABULAR ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS, from respectively Nubia, unknown location and the Crimea.
The rhomboid cane of Gorgon as a woman lacks any overlaid hair, and has a simple black bar as a necklace, like the face cane fr om the
Crimea. The surrounding glass is badly cracked and appears whitish; it is approximately 1.2 x 1.5 cm. THE ROUND BEAD OF MEDUSA as a woman
has overlaid black hair, necklace of a mosaic bar, quite similar to the spherical face bead found in Nubia on bottom of page an d is 1.5 cm
in diameter. THE SQUARE BEAD OF MEDUSA as a woman has a necklace and a crisp bundled-rod surround of chequer pattern; this style is one
of two well known for square face beads (Liu 1976; 2008b). Square face beads are rarer then round ones but lozenge-shaped tabul ar beads
have only been found in the one Nubian cache. In all three beads, the face cane extends through the depth of the bead. Mosaic face cane
slices were probably clipped or nipped off the composite bar, and have conchoidal fractures on both obverse and reverse, before
grinding/polishing, as seen in specimens on page 38. Square bead courtesy of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh. Photograph of round tabular
bead courtesy of Jamey D. Allen and former Lois S. Dubin Collection.

The iconography of the three Gorgon sisters, including is known for her charms and beautiful hair, but in a
Medusa, the only one who was mortal, is schematic but number of her face canes, the overlying black hair barely
not overly rigid when portrayed in glass mosaics: covers the stylized snake hair, which protrude from the
Gorgons have variable number of hair striations or forehead as knobs, as seen below. Where Medusa is
stylized snakes, seen as square/rectangular rods (Liu shown with long hair, achieved by hot layering black
2014). Most, but not all Gorgons on tabular beads, also glass (actually purple), it varies considerably, as do the
have a red line on the lower portion of the face cane, mosaic bars used to denote her necklace. The application
indicating the blood from her severed head, sometimes of Gorgon and Medusa as a woman has never been seen
misinterpreted as a beard. Very rarely do Gorgon face on the same face bead, except on one extremely rare glass
canes on spherical beads display this red arc of blood. spindle whorl held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medusa, shown with long black hair, a neck with (Liu 1976). All these images have apotropaic value, most
necklace and bust, also shows considerable variation; she likely adding to their value as luxury beads. Presumably,

SPHERICAL EARLY ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS from Nubia and two beads from the marketplace, with no attribution. All are Medusa with long
black hair, a mosaic bar necklace, neck and bust, all in white glass for the skin (although the flesh of the Nubian bead has an ivory cast); middle
bead is 1.3 cm diameter and has been highly reground. THE GREEN BEAD FROM NUBIA has two face canes and no other applied features; it is
highly unusual in that the matrix of the face cane almost matches the body of the bead; usually, the cane color contrasts with the rest of the
bead, as seen in the other two examples. Note the close resemblance of the mosaic bar used to denote a necklace in the round yellow tabular
bead and the green spherical face bead from Nubia. THE BLUE BEAD IS A GOOD EXAMPLE of the overlaid hair not completely hiding the original
rod striations on the Gorgon face cane, as noted by the partial rods or knobs on her forehead. At least 6-7 such beads have bee n seen. Notice
the considerable variation of the nose, eyes, eyebrow, mouth, and necklaces of these six beads, as well as the hair, and that o nly the Nubian
tabular cane has flesh-color. Photograph of the green spherical bead 24.764 courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph of middle
bead from Liu (1995). Photograph of blue bead courtesy of Walker Qin, collection of the Beijing Bead Museum/Library.
36 ORNAMENT 40.2.2 017

40_2_Nubian face beads 19_Final.indd 36 1/23/18 4:36 PM


people contemporary with these face beads would have databases now being gathered (Henderson 2013; Lankton
been able to decipher the meaning of all their features, and Dussubieux 2006). If face beads from other known
but not modern viewers, who lack knowledge about their sites were also tested, the results would offer more for
mythology and their iconography. comparison. Large and varying differences in glass of the
In 2014, I was able to view high resolution color face canes versus their surrounds could suggest local
photographs of the tabular mosaic face beads excavated production of the beads, with the mosaic canes as an import.
in the 1920s by Reisner in Nubia from the Merotic The face beads excavated by Reisner could have been
culture. These early Roman face beads, besides being imported by the Nubians from Roman Egypt, since there
the largest cache from a known was extensive trade, including
context, were unique for their Our study of these Nubian face luxury items like glass, between
lozenge shape, versus round or
beads presented a compelling gold and agricultural product
case for the supposition that
square for all extant tabular face all forms of facial images for rich Nubia and Egypt (Markowitz
beads. Like other early Roman early face beads were all derived and Doxey 2014b; O’Connor
mosaic face beads, those from from a Gorgon cane, adapted by 1993: 89). Our study of these
Nubia probably date from about beadmakers into Medusa and Nubian face beads presented a
100 B.C.-A.D. 100, although numerous other variations. compelling case for the
those from Meroë are more supposition that all forms of
tightly dated to 40 B.C.-A.D. 114. In addition, Gorgon facial images for early face beads were all derived from
canes were used to represent both Gorgon and Medusa, a Gorgon cane, adapted by beadmakers into Medusa and
without overlaid black hair for Medusa, but she had a numerous other variations.
neck, necklace and bust, and many faces and bodies of This past October, both Tom Holland and I were going
both types were in flesh-toned glass, also never before to be in Boston, so I requested permission from Denise
seen in extant face beads (Liu 2014). Gorgon used as a Doxey (one of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
woman, i.e. Medusa, is a rare mosaic image; out of a Egyptian Curators) if we could study the Nubian glass
database of about 220 face beads that I have scanned, finds, which included those seen previously as
only 38 present Medusa as a woman, usually seen as photographs and a few others mentioned in excavation
plaques on spherical face beads, even rarer on tabular reports. Sage and Tom Holland are among the few
face beads. Of these 38, only 7 appear to be made from American glass artists who have replicated ancient glass
Gorgon canes; none of these modified Gorgon faces beads (2003), so I was grateful to have his experienced
had ever been applied to tabular beads. Since Nubians eye in directly examining these face beads. Since we were
were adept with faience working, glazed stones, not at the museum long, further shortened by an
glassworking in the form of unique stratified eyebeads emergency evacuation, I sent a set of my photographs
with gold bands, as well as enameling (Markowitz and to Sage and Tom so they could analyze them further.
Doxey 2014a), I thought at that time that these Nubian Tom’s first observation was that all the Nubian tabular
face beads could be an excellent example of local face beads were slices from a whole cane and not face
glassworkers modifying imported face canes. But without canes marvered onto a bead. Like most tabular face
compositional studies on the glass of face canes and beads, these were therefore not made on a mandrel but
their surrounds, there is no way to prove this were a nipped slice of a cane, reheated for working into
supposition. In recent email discussions with James a more uniform shape, then hot-pierced, often called
Lankton, he might test some of these Nubian face rod-pierced. Hot-piercing with an iron rod distorts the
fragments if granted permission.
With the advent of portable XRF spectrometers and GREEN BARREL BEAD WITH
their ability to undertake accurate, non-destructive TWO FACES, found in
compositional analyses (Lankton et al., 2016; Liu et al., Nubia; faces appear to
be a version of Gorgon,
2012), museum curators and collectors should be much
but not seen before.
less loath to have their specimens tested. The Nubian face Brown glass may denote
beads, while weathered to some extent, have mainly hair. The face cane
non-devitrified surfaces, so they should not skew results shown is battered and of
very white glass. This
of XRF testing. If glass samples of the eyes/nose block, bead (21.12473.4) was
37 ORNAMENT 40.2.2 017

matrix of the face, their hair striations, hot-layered found with the eyebeads
hair and surrounds were tested, as well as the matrices with gold foil or bands on
the last page. Courtesy
surrounding the cane slices, there should be enough of the Museum of Fine
information to compare with the compositional glass Arts, Boston.

40_2_Nubian face beads 19_Final.indd 37 1/23/18 4:37 PM


UNUSUALLY LARGE PLAQUES OR FACE CANES OF GORGON AND MEDUSA, respectively F1909.491, 2.2 cm diameter and F1909.511, 1.6 cm high,
neither perforated but ground flat on both sides. Too big for face beads, these are probably extremely rare slices of canes bef ore they were
heated and pulled or reduced in diameter to sizes suitable for use in face beads. These are the only such face canes I have see n since I began
to research mosaic face canes in 1974. The Medusa slice is notable for the very luxuriant hair and having what appears to be two necklaces, one
a mosaic bar. Slices of face canes were struck, clipped, snapped or chipped from a composite mosaic bar (Stern and Schlick-Nolt e 1994: 62).
THREE FULL-FACE MOSAIC SLICES REPRESENTING COURTESANS, 2.2 cm high, show the same cane, but flipped; two are ground flat, one shows the
conchoidal fractures as a consequence of being broken from a composite bar. Interestingly, these faces are not white, but almost flesh-colored.
Both the Freer Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art own identical slices, which are somewhat too small and simple for theater masks, but
too large for face beads. In addition, such imagery of courtesans was never used for any face beads. Photographs were previously published
in Liu (2008b), courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Charles Lang Freer; and Liu (2008a), shows addit ional tabular face
beads and mosaic face inlay, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

cane, as seen in the photographs shown of both broken color of the face cane; a spherical bead with two faces of
Nubian and non-Nubian tabular face beads. Interestingly, Medusa, with cane slices almost matching the green glass
while the interior glass is distorted, the surface face cane of the bead matrix. Rarely are face canes just marvered
images themselves do not show this effect. In this type onto a matrix without different squares of color filling the
of piercing procedure, the glass is hot, while the iron rod intervening spaces, or of the face cane not being of a
is cold. In contemporary glassworking, a red-hot contrasting color to the matrix of the bead. The last was
tungsten rod is used to pierce cold glass, the complete a green barrel bead with two somewhat battered and
opposite of the ancient process. atypical faces of Gorgon (page 37); this face and that of
When we examined the tabular Nubian face beads, Medusa were white, unlike the other flesh-toned Nubian
both intact and fragmentary, on the surface of almost all tabular beads, and lack cracking/crazing of their glass,
Nubian-found tabular face beads, while very well although they do show damage from burial. Thus, we
preserved, there was deteriorated white, mottled glass strongly believe these three face beads were imports.
surrounding the face canes, also noted by Reisner in his While Nubians certainly had skills working silicates
field sketches. Using macro photography and flash at the such as faience and enameling, there is no evidence of
right angle, it become apparent that this is merely glassworking (Markowitz and Doxey 2014b), although
extensive cracking, crazing or crackling of the glass Lacovara (1998) comments on the importance of the
surrounding the face cane, indicating great incompatibility Merotic glass industry. The approximately 35 intact,
with the opaque murrine face cane glass. On some, there broken and fragmentary tabular face beads excavated
were also fractures (very apparent with transillumination), from Meroë ( W308 number 27, accession numbers
both in the glass and on the surface, as well as many pits 23.830a, b and c, Dunham 1963) show unique features:
on the glass surface. Not all tabular Nubian face beads rhomboid or lozenge shape, versus round or square for
displayed these additional features, nor did other all other extant tabular face beads; both Gorgon and
non-Nubian tabular face beads with similar transparent Medusa images derived from Gorgon canes, without
green glass surrounds. The crazed glass appears to be a addition of overlaid hair on Medusa; flesh-colored face
translucent brown glass, seen in a few examples that had and body, versus white for other extant tabular beads;
not crazed too badly (page 39). The cracked glass framed extreme incompatibility between the glass of the face
the face cane to provide support for the facial components, canes and overlaid or surrounding glass, manifested in
to prevent surface tension from distorting these features cracking, crazing and crackling of the glass surface.
when the mosaic cane was being hotworked. This type of Despite all these dramatic differences, we cannot conclude
38 ORNAMENT 40.2.2 017

incompatibility was never seen on any other extant tabular whether these Merotic finds are locally altered or are
early Roman face beads. imports. Whether locally adapted or imported from
Three other face beads from Nubia represented Roman Egypt, all the tabular Nubian beads are the
a round green classic Gorgon tabular bead, much product of the same workshop or beadmaker, and are
degenerated so it was not possible to determine the original unique in the totality of early Roman face beads. The

40_2_Nubian face beads 19_Final.indd 38 1/23/18 4:37 PM


NUBIAN TABULAR FACE BEADS where glass around face cane has not entirely crazed, showing its original translucent brown glass color; one can
clearly see that it is not meant to be hair, but merely frames the face cane. When making a cane, the background glass of any s ubject is a
necessary support that prevents distortion from surface tension when the mosaic cane is being hotworked.
GLASS EYE BEADS WITH STRATIFIED EYES AND APPLIED GOLD BANDS, recovered from a royal burial in the Northern Cemetery at Meroë, 1.8 cm diameter
(Dunham 1957). Dating from the early second century A.D., these eye beads are the only ones known in the ancient world to have applied gold
bands on their surface (pers. comm. 10/31/2014 D. Doxey), although other composite and glass beads also had gold applied (Liu 2014: 41). Note
the two parallel grooves on the left-hand bead, due to gold foil or sheet having fallen off. Due to the higher melting temperature of gold than glass,
it will sink into the glass, causing such grooves that have been misinterpreted as ground into the glass to accommodate the gol d bands. Harvard
University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Photograph courtesy of and © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, previously publishe d in Liu 2014: 41.
PHOTOGRAPHIC SETUP FOR NUBIAN GLASS BEADS of hand-held Canon 6D, 100mm macro lens, coupled to Canon 580EX flash with plastic diffuser,
on Leitz tablepod/ballhead, as primary camera. 100mm lens was coupled to Kenko 12mm extension tube to further increase magnific ation. Liu
also used hand-held Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens with high ISO and no flash.

other three face beads that were not found in W308 are Presented at the Second Annual Fall Jewelry Conference at FIT: A place in time:
Jewelry within the context of the decorative arts. October 6, 2007, New York City.
most likely imports. Perhaps careful compositional testing Lankton, J.W. and M. Bernbaum. 2007 An Archaeological Approach to Understanding the
Meaning of Beads Using the Example of Korean National Treasure 634,
will provide an answer to the origin and makers of this a Bead from a 5th/6th Century Royal Sila Tomb. Beads 19: 32-41.
—and L. Dussubieux. 2006 Early glass in Asian maritime trade: A review and an
tantalizing group of Nubian tabular face beads. interpretation of compositional analyses. Journal of Glass Studies 48: 121-144.
—Diamanti, J. and J. M. Kenoyer. 2003 A bead timeline. Volume I: Prehistory to 1200 CE.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Washington, D.C., The Bead Museum: 95 p.
—B. Gratuze, K. Tantrakan, Q.H. Li, and S. Liu. 2016 Scientific Analysis of Ancient Glass:
Robert K. Liu thanks Denise M. Doxey, Yvonne J. Markowitz, Amelia Kantrovitz,
Answering Questions and Questioning the Answers. In: F. Gan, L. Qinghui and J.
and Carolyn Cruthirds of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for providing both the
Henderson (eds). Recent Advances in the Scientific Research on Ancient Glass and
photographs of the Nubian glass beads, for answering my numerous questions on their Glaze. Vol. 2, Ch. 14: 267-301. Hackensack, World Century Publishing Corp. and
attribution, as well as permission to study, photograph and publish the Nubian Singapore, World Scientific Publishing Co., Pte, Ltd: 572 p.
material. He also thanks Jamey D. Allen for the yellow face bead image of Medusa and Lierke, R. 1992 Early history of lampwork—Some facts, findings and theories. Part 2. Fire
prior discussions on Roman mosaic face beads. or flame? Lampworking techniques in antiquity. Glastechnische Berichte 65 (12): 341-348.
Liu, R. K. 1974 Glass mosaic or millefiore beads. The Bead Journal 1 (1): 22-26.
—1976 Ancient glass ornaments with human facial images. The Bead Journal 2 (3): 27-32.
—1989 Collectibles: Mosaic Face Beads. Ornament 12 (3): 22-23.
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