Ancient small glass Trade Wind Beads used in Zanzibar and East Africa

Trade wind beads found in Zanzibar

Smallest bead 1 x 1 mm and the largest bead is 6 by 7 mm. Length of the chain is 55 cm.

The British Museum has almost identical small glass beads from Zanzibar. These ancient beads were found in Zanzibar / Pemba during the the early 1900's and donated to the British Museum.  The British Museum identifies the origin of most of the glass beads as probably being from Persia (Iran) See the slide-show for comparable beads in the BM. The book by F.B. Pearce (see below) gives more details about the beads that could be found around Zanzibar during the early 1900's.It should be noted that before the arrival of the Portuguese the trade with Arabia was run by the Kingdom of Hormuz (1000-1500). This kingdom was run by Persians  (Shirazzi?) en Omani Arabs.

A recent scientific study (ref 2) by Marilee Wood etc. Zanzibar and Indian Ocean trade in the first millennium CE: the glass bead evidence concludes that some of the glass beads found on Zanzibar Island (Unguja Ukuu and Fukuchani) are several thousand years old, while  others are from a later period but also many centuries old. Many beads may originate from South and South-East Asia. Glass Beads were not  completely made in Zanzibar however evidence was found that glass tubes were imported and locally converted into beads. See also the Slide-show for a photo of these beads (copied from this paper) Our beads look very similar but not sure they are also that old.

Antique glass beads Zanzibar

F.B. Pearce writes in 1919 (ref 1) : "Besides Carnelian beads , pierced amethysts and garnets  and great quantities of glass beads are also found at certain states of the tide at the ruined towns in Pemba. They are generally considered to be of Arabian or Persian manufacture, and date from the twelfth to the fifteenth century; although some specimens may be considerably older and date from the Ptolemaic period. The most common bead  found at Ndagoni is a large, irregularly shaped bluish-green glass bead of a distinctive character. After heavy rain they may be picked up by hundreds. That they are of somewhat archaic manufacture is evident from the irregularity of their shape ans size. Many appear to have become distorted in the process of being made.  The question is often asked how the existence of such quantities of beads in the sea-sands of Pemba can be accounted for:

1) That they formed part of a cargo of a wrecked ancient ship

2) That they have been washed out of ancient graves by the encroaching sea.

3) That they are the remains of some propitiatory or thank -offering made by the former inhabitants of the ruins, to the sea

4) that a bead factory factory or depot existed at the towns where beads are now found and that the encroaching sea has liberated the beads.

The fourth explanation seems the most probable . It is worth noting that at Mogishu in Italian Somali-land one of the oldest Persian or Arab settlements on the coast, complete apparatus for the manufacture of glass beads, glass stems, and coloured beads has been found (see Justus Strandes Die Portugiesenzeit von Deutsch und English Ostafrika). If a glass-bead manufacture existed at Mogdishu there is no reason why similar establishments should not have been erected elsewhere in the region" e.g. page

The necklace section contains a long chain with antique silver, wooden and  ancient glass beads. 

  1. Zanzibar the Island metropolis of Eastern Africa by F.B. Pearce, Barnes & Noble 1919 page 355
  2. Zanzibar and Indian Ocean trade in the first millennium CE: the glass bead evidence by Marilee Wood,  Panighello, S etc. published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 20 Jan 2016; Archaeol Anthropol Sci (2016). doi:10.1007/s12520-015-0310-z
  3. British Museum Af1922,0307.4.a-w (identical yellow glass beads) Sizes 0,2-0,8 cm Probably made in Iran. Donated by Miss Le Neven Foster in 1922 Found in Zanzibar.
  4. British Museum Af1959,21.27.a-e (identical red glass beads) Sizes  0,1-0,6 cm  Donated by J.H. Vaughan 1959  Zanzibar Pemba.  Findspot: Mtambwe Mkuu, "From shore near high water mark"
  5. British Museum Af1922,0307.1.a-cr (96 identical red glass beads) Sizes 0,1-0,5 cm Origin Persia (Iran) Donated by Miss Le Neven Foster in 1922 Found in Zanzibar
  6. British Museum Af1959,21.39.a-d (similar green glass beads) Donated by J.H. Vaughan 1959  Ndogoni, Pemba Is. ZANZIBAR "from shore near ruins" (?)
  7. British Museum Af1959,21.12.a-c. Similar blue/green glass beads Size 0,2-0,6 cm Excavated/Findspot: Mtambwe Mkuu NDOGONY Pemba Zanzibar, "From shore near high water mark" Donated by J.H. Vaughan 1959  
  8. British Museum Af1935,1015.2 String of similar glass beads in various colours. Found in Zanzibar. Donated by : McElderry 1935.
  9. A Handbook on Beads by WGN Sleen, Libraire Halbart Liege 1973 Contains section on  beads from Coastal East Africa / Zanzibar page 76- 91 and several references in the rest of the book.
  10. The History of beads by Lois Sherr Dubin, Harry Abrams New York 1995 page 67 contains information on Trade-wind-beads page 67 Tradewind beads of brick red, yellow, green and black opaque glass, probably dating to the fifteenth century A.D. These distinctive beads were made in India by a drawn glass technique. Many similar beads were exported . beginning in 200 BC and continuing up to the seventeenth century. They are labeled trade wind beads because they are found in  archaeological  sites by the Indian Ocean in East and South Africa  and are believed to have arrived there in the ships of Arab, Indian and Chinese traders who sailed with the monsoon winds and ocean currents. The beads are also found throughout South-east Asia, including Thailand , Java, Malaysia and Sumatra. Of particular interest are the brick red beads known as "Indian reds" in Africa and as Mutisalah in Timor. The beads shown in the photo on page 67 belonged to the Corning museum of glass and the origin of the beads was determined in 1957 by Mr. WGN van der Sleen based a comparison of similar 15th century beads excavated in Brahmapuri.