Explorations Into Liminality
“and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished it, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Beads of Ancient Bones

I love making shell jewelry. The process is part of the collective unconscious, the mysterious human memory. It is magic.

The shells I use are all either found by me or a family member on our travels. I spend lots of time beachcombing when I go back to my hometown on the Jersey shore every summer. Trawling through tide pools and jetties, grabbing at the surf and shifting huge piles of shell debris at the tide line is my idea of a fantastic day. I’ve turned my kids into treasure hunters and gatherers as well. Oh the thrill of a perfect specimen, or a bit that resembles some religious icon, or Elvis. Yes the simple pleasures run deep.

Once they’re all properly cleaned and sorted (I organize everything into divided containers according to type, size, completeness, etc etc- it’s a time consuming and sick habit, to be sure) I have to find the muse. No, her name is not Shelly, or something-or-other Clam, but she can be evasive and fickle. Making shell and gem assemblage pendants has me channeling Greek mermaids, and I have tapped into some tiny faerie shell collectors as well.

There is an ancient heritage of shell adorners, actually. The oldest beads ever excavated are shells with perforations showing wear around the edges and traces of red ochre, and they are perhaps 110,000 years old. Did you get that? One hundred and ten *thousand* years old. That means that our cave dwelling ancestors were much more sophisticated than anyone had previously thought. They most likely made the holes themselves, and painted them with the same stuff found on cave walls, and they strung them on fibers or sinew, or attached them to clothing.

There is symbolism behind personal adornment, and language to describe it. Necklaces and bracelets with painted shell beads could display wealth, social status, marital status, religious importance, and just plain bling. Humans have been artful bead collectors and independent makers for a hundred thousand years; the same types of shell beads (Nassarius gibbosulus shells) have been discovered in Israel and Algeria dating close to the 100k mark, and in South Africa closer to 70,000 years ago. In a cave in Morocco not only were these oldest shell beads recently unearthed, but also a large 12,500 year old necropolis. Could it be that the freshwater spring rising next to the cave, a perfect mermaid portal, gave it special significance for our predecessors over many millennia? (That’s my story and you can’t tell me it’s not true!)

This gets me all crazy excited and thinking and dreaming and wondering. Wow. WOW. Imagine it…

 (Image: Marian Vanhaeren/Francesco d'Errico)


AJ said...

You'd really love the Bead Museum here in Arizona... they have a lot on the history of beads and personal adornment, and their current special exhibit has some really awesome shell pieces!

mermaiden said...

oh, AJ, you're making me shudder and drool. stop it now!