By Tessa Young
Who doesn’t love a beaded necklace? They’re sold commonly today, but did you know that they were popular in the Ancient Middle East? There are a number of fabulous pieces of beaded jewelry on display in the new Middle East Galleries, and several beaded items from our collection will be featured in the Museum’s Jewelry of Ur lecture and workshop scheduled for June 14th!
When beaded artifacts are unearthed during excavation, typically the floss, or string, which held the beads has disintegrated in the burial environment. To ensure that the beadwork does not lose its original design, archaeologists will document their findings both photographically and through written records, and sometimes, they will string the beads onto a new piece of floss. This floss was usually good enough to get the pieces back to the museum, but it is not up to our modern conservation standards!
Excavation of a Bronze Age necklace from a burial in the UK (Credit: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service Contracting Team and Persimmon Homes Ltd [Anglia]) (https://www.futurity.org/shells-necklace-bronze-age-718992/)
B15918 before treatment, with a broken strand and hasty repair tying off the ends
Here at the Penn Museum, when beadwork is destined for loans, display, or requires handling for programming, the Conservation Department wants to be sure that these objects are secure. For the upcoming Jewelry of Ur program, fellow conservation technician Alyssa Rina and I were tasked with restringing several pieces of beaded jewelry, including B15918, pictured above. The floss on this piece was previously broken and then tied off in a quick repair. The plan for this conservation treatment was to restring the beads in a loop with a more durable floss.
Depending on the piece, we restring using two different weights of braided nylon floss, which has the strength necessary to hold the beads securely while also being capable of holding knots. Monofilament (fishing line) is another popular choice, but we have found that knots can come undone rather easily with this material.
Restringing beads in a padded box using a needle in the artifact lab
Penn Museum Conservators have developed several tactics to keep the beads in place during the restringing process. First, we always keep the beads contained within a padded box, preventing the beads from rolling away and getting lost. Second, as seen in the photograph, we typically use a small clamp to secure the floss to the edge of the box. This keeps everything from shifting and rolling around. Finally, we thread the floss onto a small needle to aid in the efficiency of stringing the beads. These beads had large and regular enough holes to use a standard sewing needle, but thin, flexible beading needles are also an option.
Conservators also want to be sure that the stringing will remain in place. The first bead on the string is tied into place with two half-hitches (more-or-less a fancy double knot), and then the rest of the beads are strung into place with the help of a thin, flexible needle. If the beadwork is supposed to be a loop, at the end of the strand, the floss is threaded back through the first bead, and again tied off with two half-hitches. If the beadwork is supposed to be linear, the terminal bead is tied off with two half-hitches, making sure that the beads are tight but comfortable on the strand. Once this is done, the beads are stable enough to be handled or put on display without any fear!
B15918 after re-stringing