1,000-Year-Old Colored Glass Beads Discovered in West Africa

A newly discovered treasure trove of more than 10,000 colorful glass beads, as well as evidence of glassmaking tools, suggests that an ancient city in southwestern Nigeria was one of the first places in West Africa to master the complex art of glassmaking, scientists reported.

The finding shows that people who lived in the ancient city of Ile-Ife learned how to make their own glass using local materials and fashion it into colorful beads, said study lead researcher Abidemi Babalola, a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.

“Now we know that, at least from the 11th to 15th centuries [A.D.], there was primary glass production in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Babalola, who specializes in African archaeology. 

Ancient city of IIe-Ife

The ancient city of Ile-Ife was the ancestral home of the Yoruba, an ethnic group of people who live in Africa today. The Yoruba people view Ile-Ife as the mythic birthplace of several of their deities, Babalola and his colleagues wrote in the study.

Ile-Ife is also widely known for its copper alloy and terracotta heads and figurines that were made between the 12th and 15th centuries A.D., the researchers said.

Some of the figurines are decorated with glass beads on their headdresses, crowns, necklaces, armlets and anklets, the researchers said. Moreover, archaeologists have found glass beads at Ile-Ife’s ancient shrines and within unearthed crucibles — ceramic containers that were used to melt glass.

Where did these glass beads come from? Most researchers speculated that the beads arrived from afar through trade, possibly from the Mediterranean area or the Middle East, and that artisans in Ile-Ife used crucibles to melt and refashion some of them into new beads, Babalola told Live Science.

But Babalola and a handful of other researchers suspected that the answer was closer to home. To find out, Babalola traveled to Igbo-Olokun, an archaeological site within Ile-Ife, and excavated several places from 2011 to 2012, searching for evidence of local glass production, he said.

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