Sun, Jun 23, 2002 - Page 18 News List

A book on beads worth its weight in cowries

Among the earliests forms of currency, beads and shells can be used to trace early Asian commerce, as explored in Peter Francis' `Asia's Maritime Bead Trade'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The book confines itself to Asia, but even so there's a huge amount of ground to cover. The author opts for the maritime trade rather than the better studied Silk Road, possibly just because it is less well researched.

These sea routes are anyway fascinating in themselves. In the days of sailing, the round-trip from Europe to China would take three years, running the gauntlet of the Malacca Straits, where winds were weak and pirates plentiful. The Arabs, however, had worked out how to squeeze the trip into 12 months, taking full advantage of the seasonal monsoons by departing on one specific day of the year.

Taiwan makes an appearance via the Chinese-made bead heirlooms of the Paiwan aborigines. The author acknowledges help from Taipei's Taiwan Museum (currently closed following earthquake damage in March), and samples of these necklaces are apparently held there.

Francis is quite astonishingly learned, and his footnotes are a marvel in themselves. It's always an honor to listen in to the talk of experts, and reading this book gives you precisely that feeling. If you want to know whether beads made in Egypt had short production runs (and so can be readily dated) or were made unchanged in design of 1,500 years, then Francis is your man.

Striped beads, mosaic beads, tubular beads, folded beads, pierced beads, stratified beads, gold-glass beads, segmented beads, translucent beads, combed polychrome beads, polished and drilled beads, leadless glass beads, opaque white beads -- the profusion is extraordinary considering that a bead is simply a nugget of material with a hole through it. "Simply?" you can hear Francis exclaim incredulously. "There's nothing simple about them! They're the most varied things imaginable!"

Nevertheless, this is probably not the book for would-be collectors. If you see someone sitting on a Taipei street offering a few strings of beads among the jade and polished Buddhas, the volume to aid identification would be the 2nd edition of Beads of the World (1999). This book, by contrast, is a scholarly survey of an entire system, of manufacture and distribution, the ebb and flow of stylistic and technical influences, covering half the world.

The final impression on finishing it is of the vastness and variety of Asia, the antiquity of its civilizations, and the interconnectedness of its traditions. This is probably not what the author aimed to convey, though he undoubtedly has a very strong feeling for it. But it is nevertheless what a non-expert gleans from this magisterial and meticulous, and to professionals undoubtedly near-definitive, overview -- that, and a sense of wonder.

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