ONE BEAD, ONE WORLD
A ROMAN MOSAIC FACE BEAD
Roman mosaic face beads are among the few ornaments which bear human imagery in antiquity, including the much more intricate mosaics for theater masks (Liu 2008). The ability to execute complex mosaic imagery by means of intricate canes was most likely a closely guarded skill. Unfortunately, no workshops with such figural canes were ever found, although some Egyptian glass workshop sites did contain mosaic glass or canes. Researchers working on such beads speculate that highly skilled craftsmen in Ptolemaic-Roman Egypt produced basic face canes, which were then widely traded to glass beadmakers. Because early Roman mosaic face beads are found in so many shapes, color combinations and variety of surrounds and other mosaic canes, this lent weight to the theory of local craftspeople placing face canes into beads, although no evidence of trade in face canes has surfaced. However recent studies of very different face beads found in Nubia lead me to believe that only basic Gorgon canes were produced, altered by disparate beadmakers into variations of Medusa, by hotworking the face canes (Liu et al., 2017).
This early Roman mosaic face bead, with five mosaic plaques bears the images of Medusa, the only one of the three Gorgon sisters who was mortal, dating from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. She is portrayed as a beautiful woman, with long black hair, neck, necklace, and a bust. The bead is 1.35 centimeters high and moderately weathered, and was valued at over five thousand dollars in 1992 (Liu 1995).
Such beads are widely distributed throughout Europe and the Middle East, and were regarded as luxury goods in antiquity, augmented by their apotropaic value to deter the evil eye. This imparts from the myth that the snakehaired Gorgon sisters could turn men into stone if looked upon. Early face beads with the more common Gorgon images only show a face similar to Medusa, but instead of black hair, there are stylized snakes, seen as rectangular rods placed around the perimeter of the face. Some recent finds place them in the Crimea, Croatia, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Nubia, and Syria (Liu et al., 2017).
Face beads, whether early or late Roman, are sought after by collectors and most museums with an ancient collection will have some examples. Because of their rarity, with early face beads guesstimated in the thousands, and late ones numbering in the mere twenties, there are many fakes of early face beads, but none for the late face beads.
While this specimen is imperfect, originally purchased at auction, like most other such early face beads, which reach the marketplace via illegal means, it is an unaltered one, illustrating the condition of the glass as found. Many specimens are ground, to remove deteriorated surface glass, and thus improve their coloration and clarity, especially that of the all important face cane.
Ancient and ethnographic beads have challenged contemporary glass artists to match the skills of earlier beadmakers. Brian Kerkvliet was a pioneer in replicating face canes, as well as Dinah Hulet and Isis Ray, and of course Venetian glass artists (Liu 2008). Besides being an inspiration, these glass masterpieces show the skills of ancient craftspeople, as well as the importance of trade in antiquity.
See Ornament, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2008 “Roman Mosaic Face Plaques and Beads” by Robert K. Liu; Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2017 “Ancient Nubian Face Beads: The Problem with Suppositions” by Robert K. Liu, Sage and Tom Holland; “Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic” by Robert K. Liu, 1995.