Ancient Nubian Face Beads Volume 40.2

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ENLARGED VIEWS OF FOUR INTACT NUBIAN FACE BEADS: These very clear images show good representations of Medusa, two as a Gorgon and two as a woman. But in this case, the women are formed from Gorgon face canes, evident from the striations of their hair; numbering 8 - 9. The rectangular striations represent the writhing snakes of Gorgon. The clarity of their outlines and their precise shapes suggest that these are geometric rods that were bundled onto or overlaid the face cane and not hot-layered. These four beads present two treatments of the basic face cane, all with a black outline around the lower face, with an additional red lower surround for the Gorgons, as well as a yellow bust. The red arc represents the blood from her severed head. Gorgon canes used on spherical face beads very rarely show this feature; out of over 220 scanned images, there were only two with a blood arc.

The close conformation of the Gorgon faces suggests they are from the same cane. Gorgon as a woman has flesh-colored glass formed into a neck and shoulders, with a black line or rod for a necklace, but they differ somewhat, possibly altered when marvered or encased onto or into the matrix to form a cane, although both have 9 hair striations. All of the glass of the face, neck and bust have some degree of uneven pink, although some are more faded.

The use of flesh-colored glass for mosaic face beads is unique, since all other extant beads have the skin portrayed in white/whitish or slightly ruddy glass. Could the skin tone of all other beads have de-vitrified to white from flesh-colored? Probably not. The whitish glass around each face cane is the same and has deteriorated more than the other colors of glass. When illuminated at the right angle, these white, mottled areas are actually cracked or crazed glass.

These similarities strongly point to products of the same glass workshop, most likely Roman Egypt, possibly Nubian. The transparent green matrix around the face canes of these Nubian face beads makes this color the most common for tabular face beads, totaling 44 of 62 tabular beads examined, or seventy-one percent. Photograph courtesy of and © the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, previously published in Liu (2014: 42).

Figural mosaic images on beads are among the most rare of ancient glass. Early Roman Egyptian face beads of approximately 100 B.C-A.D. 100 represent the most numerous of such ornaments, perhaps existing in the low thousands and were widely distributed through Europe and the Middle East, and are usually regarded as luxury goods. Recent finds place them in the Crimea, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Nubia, and Croatia (Sidebotham et al., 2015), as well as Hungary (Liu, pers. comm.). Their most common imagery displays full-frontal faces of Medusa as a Gorgon with stylized snakes as hair, or less often of Medusa as a beautiful woman with luxurious long hair, a necklace and a bust. Late Roman face beads, of the fourth/fifth centuries B.C., number less than thirty, occur primarily in northern Europe and Russia, but have entirely different imagery, most likely emperors. The only other cultures that also produced figural mosaics are the Javanese (Jatim beads of fifth/sixth century A.D., Lankton and Bernbaum 2007), Thai at Klong Thom (tabular face beads that may not be mosaics, possibly first to seventh century A.D.), at Bara in Pakistan and potentially somewhere in Afghanistan, based upon two nearly identical beads with complex griffin and duck mosaics.

      For those who study such mosaic face beads and glass with similar canes, there are major, problematic suppositions, since no workshops with such figural canes have ever been found, nor any face canes used for beads. Some Egyptian glass workshop sites did contain mosaic glass/canes (Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994: 27). However, two larger cane slices depicting the most frequently used Gorgon and Medusa as a woman are in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art (Liu 2008b: 62, 1.6 cm high and 2.2 cm diameter) and may be very rare examples of face canes before they were pulled or reduced to the diminutive sizes suitable for marvering onto or encasing in a face bead (page 38). Composite mosaic bars with half-face images for theater masks have been found, but these larger, more complex canes were never used for beads (Liu 2008b). 

ROUND TABULAR EARLY ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS from the Crimea, all with a Gorgon face cane, 1.4 cm high, 0.4 - 0.6 cm thick; (Liu 2008b, 2014). Burial conditions there tend to weaken the glass, so one of these broke, revealing that the transverse, non-tapering perforation resulted from hot-piercing and not from being formed on a mandrel. With our observation of similar hot- or rod-piercing in Nubian tabular face beads, this probably means that all or most tabular face beads are composed of one face cane encased in a glass matrix, with the perforation pierced. They all follow the convention of having the eyebrows, eyes and nose made in one rectangular block, with the mouth a separate element. The forehead and lower part of the face are also separate; this has also been observed by Alekseeva (1971). Note that the right-hand bead is very similar in color to Nubian tabular face beads, and the lighter glass of the eye/nose/eyebrow block is clearly evident. Courtesy of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament unless noted. BROKEN HOT-PIERCED LOZENGE-SHAPED NUBIAN TABULAR FACE BEAD AND FRONTAL VIEW OF BROKEN NUBIAN TABULAR BEAD OF GORGON showing distortion of cane and red arc indicating blood of Gorgon’s severed head, 1.1 cm diameter/23.830c. Note crazed, cracked or crackled glass around face cane. BROKEN TABULAR GORGON FACE BEAD VS CLASSIC ROUND TABULAR GORGON FACE BEAD FROM NUBIA; the latter is deteriorated, but the stylized rod striations are faintly visible, 1.1 cm diameter/23.788. INTACT TABULAR NUBIAN FACE BEAD OF GORGON AS A WOMAN, placed on top of flashlight in attempt to show cracks/23.830c. Note cracks, grooves on surface, as well as large amount of surface pits. All photographs of Nubian glass beads are courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, taken by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

      Because the Gorgon/Medusa canes are placed into so many different shapes of beads (spherical, tabular, barrel, and bulla-shaped), numbering between one for tabular, two to eight face canes per spherical bead and varying in how they are placed on the bead, with a great variety of surrounds and colors, in addition to other mosaic imagery, researchers have postulated that Medusa, Gorgon and other canes employed on face beads were most likely produced as a basic cane by skilled glassworkers in Ptolemaic-Roman Egypt, such as in Alexandria, Egypt, the Levant or elsewhere in the Middle East (Henderson 2013, Lankton et al., 2016). These face/Medusa/Gorgon canes, whether in large diameter form or reduced by pulling while hot into smaller sizes suitable for face beads, were then distributed to disparate end users, usually glass beadmakers. Thus the great individual variation found on early Roman face beads. But there has also never been confirmation that face canes were an item of trade, although glass tesserae for mosaics or beads have been found in such contexts (Andersen and Sode 2010, Henderson 2013, Neri et al., 2016).

LOZENGE-SHAPED, ROUND AND SQUARE TABULAR ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS, from respectively Nubia, unknown location and the Crimea. The rhomboid cane of Gorgon as a woman lacks any overlaid hair, and has a simple black bar as a necklace, like the face cane from the Crimea. The surrounding glass is badly cracked and appears whitish; it is approximately 1.2 x 1.5 cm. THE ROUND BEAD OF MEDUSA as a woman has overlaid black hair, necklace of a mosaic bar, quite similar to the spherical face bead found in Nubia on bottom of page and is 1.5 cm in diameter. THE SQUARE BEAD OF MEDUSA as a woman has a necklace and a crisp bundled-rod surround of chequer pattern; this style is one of two well known for square face beads (Liu 1976; 2008b). Square face beads are rarer then round ones but lozenge-shaped tabular beads have only been found in the one Nubian cache. In all three beads, the face cane extends through the depth of the bead. Mosaic face cane slices were probably clipped or nipped off the composite bar, and have conchoidal fractures on both obverse and reverse, before grinding/polishing, as seen in specimens on page 38. Square bead courtesy of Teresa and Paul Harbaugh. Photograph of round tabular bead courtesy of Jamey D. Allen and former Lois S. Dubin Collection.

      While we do not know the size of ancient face canes, Brian Kerkvliet (Liu 1989), the first American to make mosaic face canes, used the layering or the hot-strip method for his murrine canes. In one continuous work session of about two hours, he ended with a piece of glass cane approximately three inches in diameter by four inches long (approximately 7.5 x 10.0 cm), before pulling the rod while hot to a size small enough for application to face beads, at approximately 0.35 cm diameter.

The iconography of the three Gorgon sisters, including Medusa, the only one who was mortal, is schematic but not overly rigid when portrayed in glass mosaics: Gorgons have variable number of hair striations or stylized snakes, seen as square/rectangular rods (Liu 2014). Most, but not all Gorgons on tabular beads, also have a red line on the lower portion of the face cane, indicating the blood from her severed head, sometimes misinterpreted as a beard. Very rarely do Gorgon face canes on spherical beads display this red arc of blood. 

Medusa, shown with long black hair, a neck with necklace and bust, also shows considerable variation; she is known for her charms and beautiful hair, but in a number of her face canes, the overlying black hair barely covers the stylized snake hair, which protrude from the forehead as knobs, as seen below. Where Medusa is shown with long hair, achieved by hot layering black glass (actually purple), it varies considerably, as do the mosaic bars used to denote her necklace. The application of Gorgon and Medusa as a woman has never been seen on the same face bead, except on one extremely rare glass spindle whorl held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Liu 1976). All these images have apotropaic value, most likely adding to their value as luxury beads. Presumably, people contemporary with these face beads would have been able to decipher the meaning of all their features, but not modern viewers, who lack knowledge about their mythology and their iconography.

SPHERICAL EARLY ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS from Nubia and two beads from the marketplace, with no attribution. All are Medusa with long black hair, a mosaic bar necklace, neck and bust, all in white glass for the skin (although the flesh of the Nubian bead has an ivory cast); middle bead is 1.3 cm diameter and has been highly reground. THE GREEN BEAD FROM NUBIA has two face canes and no other applied features; it is highly unusual in that the matrix of the face cane almost matches the body of the bead; usually, the cane color contrasts with the rest of the bead, as seen in the other two examples. Note the close resemblance of the mosaic bar used to denote a necklace in the round yellow tabular bead and the green spherical face bead from Nubia. THE BLUE BEAD IS A GOOD EXAMPLE of the overlaid hair not completely hiding the original rod striations on the Gorgon face cane, as noted by the partial rods or knobs on her forehead. At least 6-7 such beads have been seen. Notice the considerable variation of the nose, eyes, eyebrow, mouth, and necklaces of these six beads, as well as the hair, and that only the Nubian tabular cane has flesh-color. Photograph of the green spherical bead 24.764 courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph of middle bead from Liu (1995). Photograph of blue bead courtesy of Walker Qin, collection of the Beijing Bead Museum/Library.

      In 2014, I was able to view high resolution color photographs of the tabular mosaic face beads excavated in the 1920s by Reisner in Nubia from the Merotic culture. These early Roman face beads, besides being the largest cache from a known context, were unique for their lozenge shape, versus round or square for all extant tabular face beads. Like other early Roman mosaic face beads, those from Nubia probably date from about 100 B.C.-A.D. 100, although those from Meroë are more tightly dated to 40 B.C.-A.D. 114. In addition, Gorgon canes were used to represent both Gorgon and Medusa, without overlaid black hair for Medusa, but she had a neck, necklace and bust, and many faces and bodies of both types were in flesh-toned glass, also never before seen in extant face beads (Liu 2014). Gorgon used as a woman, i.e. Medusa, is a rare mosaic image; out of a database of about 220 face beads that I have scanned, only 38 present Medusa as a woman, usually seen as plaques on spherical face beads, even rarer on tabular face beads. Of these 38, only 7 appear to be made from Gorgon canes; none of these modified Gorgon faces had ever been applied to tabular beads. Since Nubians were adept with faience working, glazed stones, glassworking in the form of unique stratified eyebeads with gold bands, as well as enameling (Markowitz and Doxey 2014a), I thought at that time that these Nubian face beads could be an excellent example of local glassworkers modifying imported face canes. But without compositional studies on the glass of face canes and their surrounds, there is no way to prove this supposition. In recent email discussions with James Lankton, he might test some of these Nubian face fragments if granted permission.

Our study of these Nubian face beads presented a compelling case for the supposition that all forms of facial images for early face beads were all derived from a Gorgon cane, adapted by beadmakers into Medusa and numerous other variations.

      With the advent of portable XRF spectrometers and their ability to undertake accurate, non-destructive compositional analyses (Lankton et al., 2016; Liu et al., 2012), museum curators and collectors should be much less loath to have their specimens tested. The Nubian face beads, while weathered to some extent, have mainly non-devitrified surfaces, so they should not skew results of XRF testing. If glass samples of the eyes/nose block, matrix of the face, their hair striations, hot-layered hair and surrounds were tested, as well as the matrices surrounding the cane slices, there should be enough information to compare with the compositional glass databases now being gathered (Henderson 2013; Lankton and Dussubieux 2006). If face beads from other known sites were also tested, the results would offer more for comparison. Large and varying differences in glass of the face canes versus their surrounds could suggest local production of the beads, with the mosaic canes as an import. 

GREEN BARREL BEAD WITH TWO FACES, found in Nubia; faces appear to be a version of Gorgon, but not seen before. Brown glass may denote hair. The face cane shown is battered and of very white glass. This bead (21.12473.4) was found with the eyebeads with gold foil or bands on the last page. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

      The face beads excavated by Reisner could have been imported by the Nubians from Roman Egypt, since there was extensive trade, including luxury items like glass, between gold and agricultural product rich Nubia and Egypt (Markowitz and Doxey 2014b; O’Connor 1993: 89). Our study of these Nubian face beads presented a compelling case for the supposition that all forms of facial images for early face beads were all derived from a Gorgon cane, adapted by beadmakers into Medusa and numerous other variations.

This past October, both Tom Holland and I were going to be in Boston, so I requested permission from Denise Doxey (one of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Egyptian Curators) if we could study the Nubian glass finds, which included those seen previously as photographs and a few others mentioned in excavation reports. Sage and Tom Holland are among the few American glass artists who have replicated ancient glass beads (2003), so I was grateful to have his experienced eye in directly examining these face beads. Since we were not at the museum long, further shortened by an emergency evacuation, I sent a set of my photographs to Sage and Tom so they could analyze them further. Tom’s first observation was that all the Nubian tabular face beads were slices from a whole cane and not face canes marvered onto a bead. Like most tabular face beads, these were therefore not made on a mandrel but were a nipped slice of a cane, reheated for working into a more uniform shape, then hot-pierced, often called rod-pierced. Hot-piercing with an iron rod distorts the cane, as seen in the photographs shown of both broken Nubian and non-Nubian tabular face beads. Interestingly, while the interior glass is distorted, the surface face cane images themselves do not show this effect. In this type of piercing procedure, the glass is hot, while the iron rod is cold. In contemporary glassworking, a red-hot tungsten rod is used to pierce cold glass, the complete opposite of the ancient process.

When we examined the tabular Nubian face beads, both intact and fragmentary, on the surface of almost all Nubian-found tabular face beads, while very well preserved, there was deteriorated white, mottled glass surrounding the face canes, also noted by Reisner in his field sketches. Using macro photography and flash at the right angle, it become apparent that this is merely extensive cracking, crazing or crackling of the glass surrounding the face cane, indicating great incompatibility with the opaque murrine face cane glass. On some, there were also fractures (very apparent with transillumination), both in the glass and on the surface, as well as many pits on the glass surface. Not all tabular Nubian face beads displayed these additional features, nor did other non-Nubian tabular face beads with similar transparent green glass surrounds. The crazed glass appears to be a translucent brown glass, seen in a few examples that had not crazed too badly (page 39). The cracked glass framed the face cane to provide support for the facial components, to prevent surface tension from distorting these features when the mosaic cane was being hotworked. This type of incompatibility was never seen on any other extant tabular early Roman face beads. 

UNUSUALLY LARGE PLAQUES OR FACE CANES OF GORGON AND MEDUSA, respectively F1909.491, 2.2 cm diameter and F1909.511, 1.6 cm high, neither perforated but ground flat on both sides. Too big for face beads, these are probably extremely rare slices of canes before they were heated and pulled or reduced in diameter to sizes suitable for use in face beads. These are the only such face canes I have seen since I began to research mosaic face canes in 1974. The Medusa slice is notable for the very luxuriant hair and having what appears to be two necklaces, one a mosaic bar. Slices of face canes were struck, clipped, snapped or chipped from a composite mosaic bar (Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994: 62).
THREE FULL-FACE MOSAIC SLICES REPRESENTING COURTESANS, 2.2 cm high, show the same cane, but flipped; two are ground flat, one shows the conchoidal fractures as a consequence of being broken from a composite bar. Interestingly, these faces are not white, but almost flesh-colored. Both the Freer Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art own identical slices, which are somewhat too small and simple for theater masks, but too large for face beads. In addition, such imagery of courtesans was never used for any face beads. Photographs were previously published in Liu (2008b), courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Charles Lang Freer; and Liu (2008a), shows additional tabular face beads and mosaic face inlay, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      Three other face beads from Nubia represented a round green classic Gorgon tabular bead, much degenerated so it was not possible to determine the original color of the face cane; a spherical bead with two faces of Medusa, with cane slices almost matching the green glass of the bead matrix. Rarely are face canes just marvered onto a matrix without different squares of color filling the intervening spaces, or of the face cane not being of a contrasting color to the matrix of the bead. The last was a green barrel bead with two somewhat battered and atypical faces of Gorgon (page 37); this face and that of Medusa were white, unlike the other flesh-toned Nubian tabular beads, and lack cracking/crazing of their glass, although they do show damage from burial. Thus, we strongly believe these three face beads were imports.

While Nubians certainly had skills working silicates such as faience and enameling, there is no evidence of glassworking (Markowitz and Doxey 2014b), although Lacovara (1998) comments on the importance of the Merotic glass industry. The approximately 35 intact, broken and fragmentary tabular face beads excavated from Meroë (W308 number 27, accession numbers 23.830a, b and c, Dunham 1963) show unique features: rhomboid or lozenge shape, versus round or square for all other extant tabular face beads; both Gorgon and Medusa images derived from Gorgon canes, without addition of overlaid hair on Medusa; flesh-colored face and body, versus white for other extant tabular beads; extreme incompatibility between the glass of the face canes and overlaid or surrounding glass, manifested in cracking, crazing and crackling of the glass surface. Despite all these dramatic differences, we cannot conclude whether these Merotic finds are locally altered or are imports. Whether locally adapted or imported from Roman Egypt, all the tabular Nubian beads are the product of the same workshop or beadmaker, and are unique in the totality of early Roman face beads. The other three face beads that were not found in W308 are most likely imports. Perhaps careful compositional testing will provide an answer to the origin and makers of this tantalizing group of Nubian tabular face beads.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Robert K. Liu thanks Denise M. Doxey, Yvonne J. Markowitz, Amelia Kantrovitz, and Carolyn Cruthirds of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for providing both the photographs of the Nubian glass beads, for answering my numerous questions on their attribution, as well as permission to study, photograph and publish the Nubian material. He also thanks Jamey D. Allen for the yellow face bead image of Medusa and prior discussions on Roman mosaic face beads. 

 

NUBIAN TABULAR FACE BEADS where glass around face cane has not entirely crazed, showing its original translucent brown glass color; one can clearly see that it is not meant to be hair, but merely frames the face cane. When making a cane, the background glass of any subject is a necessary support that prevents distortion from surface tension when the mosaic cane is being hotworked.
GLASS EYE BEADS WITH STRATIFIED EYES AND APPLIED GOLD BANDS, recovered from a royal burial in the Northern Cemetery at Meroë, 1.8 cm diameter (Dunham 1957). Dating from the early second century A.D., these eye beads are the only ones known in the ancient world to have applied gold bands on their surface (pers. comm. 10/31/2014 D. Doxey), although other composite and glass beads also had gold applied (Liu 2014: 41). Note the two parallel grooves on the left-hand bead, due to gold foil or sheet having fallen off. Due to the higher melting temperature of gold than glass, it will sink into the glass, causing such grooves that have been misinterpreted as ground into the glass to accommodate the gold bands. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Photograph courtesy of and © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, previously published in Liu 2014: 41.
PHOTOGRAPHIC SETUP FOR NUBIAN GLASS BEADS of hand-held Canon 6D, 100mm macro lens, coupled to Canon 580EX flash with plastic diffuser, on Leitz tablepod/ballhead, as primary camera. 100mm lens was coupled to Kenko 12mm extension tube to further increase magnification. Liu also used hand-held Canon 7D, 60mm macro lens with high ISO and no flash.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. A frequent lecturer, some of his topics include precolumbian jewelry, prehistoric Southwest jewelry and ancient Egyptian jewelry. In this issue Liu revisits the unique early Roman mosaic face beads found in Nubia, and enlists the help of glass bead experts and replicators of ancient glass, Sage and Tom Holland.