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Smithsonian Folklife Festival Showcases Ancient Beadmaking - 2002-07-12

The art of beadmaking has a rich history. It created portable wealth, carried by travellers and nomadic tribes along the historic Silk Road, which connected Far Eastern and Mediterranean cultures from 100 years before the Christian era through the 15th century. The Silk Road was recently recreated in an extensive outdoor exhibit here in Washington, by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. VOA's Brent Hurd took a look and found that within a strand of tiny, intricate beads, lies the roots of grand civilizations.

In a sun-filled tent on the National Mall in Washington, Haji Ashoor and his family , bead makers from Peshawar, Pakistan, demonstrate a 5,000-year-old technique, turning lumps of desert rock into elaborate jewelry, so delicate that it drapes as softly as strands of silk.

In Afghanistan, these micro beads were once embroidered onto clothing. The tiniest beads are only about one millimeter long and one millimeter in diameter. The effort required to make these beads is painstaking. One strand of tiny beads can take a full day to create.

They are drilled by hand, without electricity or modern machinery. Instead, simple tools: a small handmade bow, a sheep's bone and a bowl of water are used by Mr. Ashoor and his son, Abdul Momin, to create one of the oldest forms of decoration in human history.

Mark Kenoyer, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, has been studying this ancient technique for 26 years.

"Beadmaking is a form of power and when you wear those beads, people see that you have power, or that you have access to power," he explained. " Anybody can wear a big old hunky piece of rock with a hole in it, but not very many people can afford to get itsy-bitsy tiny beads it takes days and days to make and wear them around their necks."

Professor Kenoyer says bead makers often kept their techniques secret. In Italy, artisans tried to copy the eastern technique of beadmaking using glass beads. But the smooth stone beads, with perfectly-centered holes, could not be matched and remained much more desirable.

"Beads are one of the very most important materials passing along the Silk Road. ... And these people developed a certain technology that no one else does.... No one else in the world makes tiny beads like these guys do," said Professor Kenoyer. Abdul Momin starts the process by sawing off small pieces of lapis lazuli or similar minerals. He than takes a small wooden bow and entwines a tiny diamond-tipped drill in the bow string. With a quick, smooth sawing of the bow, he drills a hole in the lapis positioned in a bowl of water to keep the material cool so the small stone will not break. The next step is to string the rough beads on a silk or nylon thread.

Now Mr. Momin climbs on a modified bicycle and begins to power a chain-driven grinding wheel mounted between the handlebars. While pedaling, he holds the taught string of rough beads against the spinning stone. In the end each bead is perfectly smooth and rounded.

Many of Mr. Momin's relatives are bead makers. Such artisans help discourage the looting of archaeological sites by demonstrating to collectors that exact replicas of the ancient beads are available.

"My family worked a long time [in making beads] ... my grandfather's were in beadmaking. And younger brothers are bead makers in Peshawar," he said. While ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia constructed monumental tombs, temples and palaces, the inhabitants of the greater Indus River valley in cities like Harappa, in what is now Pakistan, were busy making important cultural contributions with their beads. Beadmaking paved the way for modern day gem-cutting and glass technology.

Anthropologist Mark Kenoyer says the popularity of these beads is proven by the fact they have been discovered in cities all along the Silk Road.

"I have seen beads in Korean burials that I think were made in Central Asia and we are doing some studies on that," he said.

As the family's small tent filled with visitors at the Silk Road exhibition, it became clear the traditions of the Silk Road transcend the exchange of goods: they bring people together. Here in the year 2002, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the U.S. capital stood transfixed as this ancient art of beadmaking continues.