Friday, May 16, 2014

Beothuk Bead Necklaces

Beothuk necklaces and raw materials
 When James Howley captioned a photo of a pair of Beothuk beaded necklaces in his 1915 publication "The Beothucks or Red Indians", he said that they were made from "pipe stems, sheet lead, and of the inner birch bark strung upon a thong of deer skin."  Ingeborg Marshall notes in her book, "A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk" that one of the original necklaces had 83 beads and one had 157.  She speculates that the beads they may have served as counters in a dice game.  In these reproductions, I've used cut and ground sections of ochre stained pipe stems for the beads and scallop shells for the discs on each end.  Both examples are copies of the shorter string of 83 beads.

I love getting mail!
When I was stumped for scallop shell to use for the discs on the end of the cords, I put a call out to my friends on Facebook. Within a few hours, Lee Gilbert, who blogs at "A Whole Bunch of Ings" had delivered four big shells and an extra whale rib to my mailbox.  Lee has helped me out several times in the past when I needed the sorts of raw materials that can generally be found washed up on beaches.  Please check out his blog for his kayaking adventures and spectacular photography.

One of these is going to a museum and the other is for a local elementary school.  Both will probably be handled a lot, so I used artificial sinew for the cord rather than twisted sinew.   I think Howley's original description of a "thong of deer skin" is a slight misidentification of a sinew cord.

I'm not certain what species of shell were used in the original artifacts, but I went with scallops because they are big and tough and I knew that I could get the four discs that I needed out of one or two shells.  In fact I got nearly a dozen discs out of one shell.

These are the "pipe stems" that I used for the beads.  They are actually little kaolin clay tubes made for me several years ago by a ceramic artist and conservator in the Province - thanks Jason and Miki!

These are a few beads and the rest of the shell discs after a bit of red ochre staining and scorching.  I add the ochre to match the colour and fire to add age.

The completed necklaces and the materials used to make them
This is one of the originals on display in the Mary March Provinicial Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor.

One reproduction.  It will grow to match the original even more as it is handled and ages.  As the ochre wears through the white pipe stems will show up in greater contrast, like the original.  I'm very pleased with about half of the beads that I made.  I cut some of them a little thicker than they should be.  The original beads are relatively thin and flat.

Two reproductions.
Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Please contact me at; i would like to ask a few things of you. I like your work style.
    Ty, Chief Carol SongofJoy

    1. Thank you Carol. I may be slow to reply over the holidays, but feel free to contact me at

  2. Just wondering what those original beads are made of .I got a load of dredging from Little Port harbour to go in my yard once and found something similar to some of the beads shown . Wonder if its of any interest to anyone. Far as I know I may still have one around.


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