Thousand years old coloured glass beads discovered

A treasure trove of more than 10000 colourful glass beads and evidence of glassmaking tools were found in Ile-Ife, South-western Nigeria, suggesting that the ancient city was one of the first places in West Africa to master the art of glassmaking.

Ancient glass beads from Ile-Ife (by Abidemi Babalola)

It is believed that Ile-Ife was a primary glass production in Sub-Saharan Africa from the 11th to 15th centuries AD. The site was the ancestral home of the Yoruba, an ethnic group of people who live in Africa today. The Yoruba people view Ile-Ife as the mythic birthplace of several of their deities. Archaeologists have found glass beads at Ile-Ife’s ancient shrines and within unearthed crucibles — ceramic containers that were used to melt glass, and on figurines decorated with glass beads on their headdresses, crowns, necklaces, armlets and anklets. After the West African people made these beads, they traded them far and wide. Beads with the same components have been found in the upper Senegal region, including in Mali, and along the Niger River.

Glass beads found in Ile-Ife (by Abidemi Babalola)

The treasure trove was discovered at a site called Igbo-Olokun within Ile-Ife during excavations between 2011 and 2012. The trove contained almost 13000 beads, 812 crucible fragments, 403 fragments of ceramic cylinders, almost 3 kilograms of glass waste and about 14000 potsherds. The majority of the beads are less than 5 millimetres across and are coloured blue, green, red, yellow or multicoloured. The researchers did not find any any furnaces that would have helped artisans heat the crucibles, but the evidence, such as glass-production debris and the presence of vitrified clay fragments, indicate that these areas were in, or very near, a zone of glass workshops. According to the researchers, many of the beads, primarily the blue ones, were made almost exclusively from materials that are found near Igbo-Olokun, as they have a high aluminum-oxide content, which is present in sand deposits near Ile-Ife.

Crucible fragments (A), Vitrified clay (B), Ceramic cylinders (C), and glass bead production debris (G) (by Abidemi Babalola)

(after Abidemi Babalola & Live Science)

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