Glass beads of all colors found in the ancient city of Ile-Ife.

1000-year-old Glass Beads Provide First Evidence of Glassmaking Development in Sub-Saharan West Africa

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A newly found treasure trove of more than 10,000 colorful glass beads and evidence of glassmaking tools, makes scientists think that an ancient city in southwestern Nigeria was one of the first places in West Africa to ace the complicated art of glassmaking.

Glass Production in Sub-Saharan Africa

The new finding reveals that people who lived in the ancient city of Ile-Ife produced their own glass with the use of local materials. Interestingly, they could transform it into colorful beads, as the study lead researcher Abidemi Babalola, a fellow at Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, told Live Science . "Now we know that, at least from the 11th to 15th centuries (AD), there was primary glass production in sub-Saharan Africa," he says and adds that Ile-Ife is also popular for its copper alloy and terracotta heads and figurines that were made around the same period and included the colorful glass beads.

Phoenician pendant in the form of a bearded head decorated with beads (4th-3rd century BC)

Phoenician pendant in the form of a bearded head decorated with beads (4th-3rd century BC) ( Public Domain )

For that matter, some of the figurines are decorated with glass beads on their headdresses, crowns, necklaces, armlets and anklets, the researchers said. Additionally, researchers have discovered glass beads at Ile-Ife's ancient shrines and within unearthed crucibles — ceramic containers that were used to melt glass.

The Origin of Glass

The question is: where did these glass beads come from? The majority of the researchers suggested that the beads were transported through trade, most likely from the Mediterranean area or the Middle East, where the art of glassmaking flourished in early antiquity, and from them local artisans in Ile-Ife used crucibles to melt and reshape some of them into new beads, as Babalola told Live Science .

As DHWTY reported in a previous Ancient Origins article , glass was first (accidentally) produced by merchants moored on the river Belus in the Syrian region of Phoenicia. These merchants were said to be transporting niter (potassium nitrate) in their ship. As they were preparing their meal on the beach, the merchants could not find suitable stones for supporting their cauldrons. Therefore, they decided to take some lumps of niter from their ship for that purpose. When the niter combined with the sand on the beach, and reacted with the heat from the fire, “they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown”.

After that coincidental event and the invention of glass, several techniques would be used in order to produce glass in the ancient world. Some of them are core-forming, slumping, and mould-forming. The first technique involved coating molten glass around a mass made of dung or clay. A similar process was used to form glass beads, though a rod coated with a release material replaced the core.

Necklace (Odigba Ileke Ifa), 1900s, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Yoruba people, cloth, glass beads, cardboard, wood - Cleveland Museum of Art

Necklace (Odigba Ileke Ifa), 1900s, Guinea Coast, Nigeria, Yoruba people, cloth, glass beads, cardboard, wood - Cleveland Museum of Art ( Public Domain )

Slumping was used to produce open vessels such as bowls and plates. Molten glass was poured into a heat-resistant mould (either a positive of negative refractory form), and was allowed to flow downwards due to gravity. When the glass cooled, it would achieve its desired shape. Bowls and plates were also produced by the mould-forming technique.

Evidence That Glassmaking Developed Independently in Nigeria

However, Babalola insists that his African ancestors didn’t borrow much from foreign nations when it comes to complex glassmaking. During a 2012 excavation he collected almost 13,000 beads, 812 crucible fragments, 403 fragments of ceramic cylinders (rods that were possibly used to handle the crucible lids), almost 7 lbs. (3.2 kg) of glass waste and about 14,000 potsherds, as the researchers noted in the study.

Photos showing (a) crucible fragments; (b) vitrified clay; (c) ceramic cylinders; and (d) glass bead production debris. The blue likely came from cobalt.

Photos showing (a) crucible fragments; (b) vitrified clay; (c) ceramic cylinders; and (d) glass bead production debris. The blue likely came from cobalt. Credit: Babalola, A.B.

Despite not finding any furnaces that would have helped artisans heat the crucibles, the researchers write that "the abundance of glass-production debris and the presence of vitrified clay fragments [clay with melted glass on it] indicate, however, that these areas were in, or very near, a zone of glass workshops," as Live Science reports .

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