Stone & Glass Beads of Iron Age Southeast Asia

A review of Trade, Exchange and Sociopolitical Development in Iron Age (500 BC – AD 500) Mainland Southeast Asia: An Examination of Stone and Glass Beads from Cambodia and Thailand, by Alison Kyra Carter.

Alison Kyra Carter’s dissertation uses data from beads made of stone (agate, carnelian, and garnet) and glass to address two major research questions concerning the Iron Age of Mainland Southeast Asia, about 500 BC through AD 500: 1) What geographic patterns and chronological trends can be detected through these artifacts?; and 2) Do these patterns and trends relate to emerging social-political complexity in the Mekong Delta? These issues are addressed thoroughly and clearly in more than 400 pages of narrative text, illustrations, and summary tables. Additionally, thirteen complete appendices of primary data are supplied for reference.

This dissertation offers a new and welcome contribution to the growing body of work about stone and glass beads of the Iron Age in Southeast Asia [1]. New methods, especially in geochemical compositional analysis, have stimulated scientific investigations into ancient trading networks in Southeast Asia as it is presented by Carter. Furthermore, similar to previous research on material from Southeast Asia, her study makes an important contribution to strengthening theories on the formation of complex societies and early states in the region [2].

Carter addresses the research topics described above using a substantive data set comprising about 10,000 beads from 12 sites. At the same time, she also addresses larger theoretical questions concerning the roles of trade and exchange in the formation process of social complexity in Southeast Asia. The robust results support a new reconstruction of the relations among Iron Age communities in Mainland Southeast Asia, which have important implications for our understanding of broader regional and cross-regional developments and interactions, especially with South Asia. The information on bead production centers and the formation and expansion of trade networks that Carter presents contributes in a major fashion to our general understanding of craft specialization, elite control, and social-political complexity in Southeast Asia during the Iron Age.

Chapter 1 introduces the research questions, clarifies the operational terminology, and outlines the roles of the following chapters. This strong logical organization is maintained from start to finish throughout the dissertation, so that the complete work is easy to follow and comprehend. In this fashion, the two key research questions (noted above) are examined in full detail.

Chapter 2 frames the research questions within a summary of the current state of archaeological research in Southeast Asia. The emphasis necessarily is on the Iron Age and on the key research themes of the dissertation, presented with reference to the massive literature of Southeast Asian archaeology. General information on geography, ecology, and cultural chronology is likewise provided. This chapter concludes with pertinent information about selected Iron Age sites in Thailand and Cambodia, from which the stone and glass beads studied for this dissertation were taken.

Chapter 3 enters into a discussion of theoretical issues concerning the emergence of social-political complexity in Southeast Asia. This subject has been a favorite among archaeologists and historians, and in this context is treated with a focus on the Iron Age and paying special attention to the role of stone and glass beads as traded commodities. The discussion proceeds on solid ground, given the framework of the antecedent chapters.

Chapter 4 outlines the research methodology and is especially concerned with how to relate the substantive body of bead artifacts with larger theoretical questions concerning trading networks and development of social-political complexity. Carter developed a recording system for describing the stone and glass beads that she analyzed, and this system promises to be useful for future studies on bead morphology, production, and distribution. A major contribution here is a geochemical analysis of beads from selected sites, using laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS). Additionally, scanning electron microscope (SEM) was employed for a closer examination of the manufacturing techniques of the stone beads.

Chapter 5 discloses the contextual and morphological studies of agate and carnelian beads. This contextual study clarifies basic information on the sites from which the beads were recovered, serving as a fundamental guide to discerning geographic patterns and chronological trends. The morphological studies involved physical observations and measurements. The various types of agate and carnelian beads are described clearly and with instructive illustrations.

Chapter 6 concentrates of the geochemical study of 79 agate and carnelian beads, as well as of 12 natural geological sources of raw materials. Through these analyses, Carter was able to link certain morphological types of beads with specific geological sources. Overall, the usage of materials from different geological sources did not appear to change significantly over time, at least within the Iron Age.

Chapter 7 examines the glass beads. Technical background is provided on how glass beads are manufactured, and this information proves useful for interpreting the results of the geochemical studies. Here, Carter works with data sets from prior geochemical studies, augmented by her own observations. Correlations are found between colors as well as between various compositional types of glass. Several geographic patterns and chronological trends are discernable and can be ascertained with varying degrees of confidence.

Chapter 8 focuses on the garnet beads, previously under-represented in the literature of Southeast Asian archaeology and therefore of great interest for filling a gap in knowledge. Morphological observations were recorded for 23 garnet beads, and geochemical analysis was performed for 13 garnet beads and nine geological sources of raw material. The results suggest both import and local production of garnet beads, although Carter acknowledges the limits of these inferences because of the small number of selected sites and limited sample size of specimens analyzed.

Chapter 9 integrates the data of the preceding chapters into a detailed discussion of the key research themes, in support of the ultimate conclusions of this dissertation. Carter discusses how trading networks in Southeast Asia changed over the period from about 500 BC through AD 500. Over this period, the number and configuration of contact nodes changed, as did the roles of different types of material in the exchange system. Carter’s work highlights how stone and glass beads reflect these larger patterns and trends in Southeast Asian trade, which are in turn suggestive of developments in social-political complexity among the trading partners.

Based on these studies, Cater infers a change over time in the systems of trade and exchange, as reflected in types of agate, carnelian, and glass beads. During the early Iron Age, i.e., in the late centuries BC, “Period 1 Type” agate and carnelian beads and potash glass beads appear to have been exchanged through pre-existing coastal exchange networks between specific settlements. Later, in the early centuries AD, communities in the Mekong Delta and in Angkor Borei started to participate in these and possibly other new trading networks, as represented in “Period 2 Type” agate and carnelian beads and high alumina-content soda glass beads. Carter argues that the distribution patterns of these new stone and glass bead types can be seen as proxies for expanding social-political and economic influences between elites in the Mekong Delta and communities farther inland.

Carter’s dissertation establishes a model of Iron Age trading systems in Southeast Asia based on solid data-sets and without overstating the findings. This study incorporates substantial data from several regions in Cambodia and Thailand, including important new discoveries that have not been available before. Particularly noteworthy is the unified approach used in examining such a large number of different types of beads in different ways and all in one single study. Moreover, the rich data set allows for a sophisticated discussion of key research issues. This dissertation therefore soon will become a “must read” in Southeast Asian archaeology.

Hsiao-chun Hung
Department of Archaeology and Natural History
School of Culture, History and Language
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
Australian National University

Primary Sources

Archaeological reports
Archaeological stone beads
Archaeological glass beads
Morphological analysis
Geochemical compositional analysis

Dissertation Information

Universty of Wisconsin-Madison. 2013. 903 pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. Available at:


[1]  Bérénice Bellina, “Beads, Social Change and Interaction Between India and South-east Asia.” Antiquity, vol.  77, no. 296 (March 2003), pp. 285-297; idem, Cultural Exchange between India and Southeast Asia: Production and distribution of hard stone ornaments (VI c. BC-VI c. AD) (Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2007); Bérénice Bellina and Ian Glover “The Archaeology of Early Contact with India and the Mediterranean World, from the Fourth Century BC to the Fourth Century AD” in Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood eds., Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004, pp. 68-87; Laure Dussubieux and Bernard Gratuze, “Non-Destructive Characterization of Glass Beads: An Application to the Study of Glass Trade Between India and Southeast Asia” in Anna Karlström and Anna Källén eds., Fishbones and Glittering Emblems: Southeast Asian Archaeology. Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 2003, pp. 101-135; Laure Dussubieux, James W. Lankton, Bellina-Pryce Berenice, and Boonyarit Chaisuwan, “Early Glass Trade in South and Southeast Asia: New Insights from Two Coastal Sites, Phu Khao Thong in Thailand and Arikamedu in South India” in Mai-Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, Andreas Reinecke and Dominik Bonatz eds., Crossing Borders: Selected Papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists,Volume 1. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, pp. 307-328; James Lankton and Laure Dussubieux, “Early Glass in Asian Maritime Trade: A Review and an Interpretation of Compositional Analysis” Journal of Glass Studies, vol. 48, (2006), pp. 121-144; idem, “Early Glass in Southeast Asia” in Koen Janssens ed., Modern Methods for Analysing Archaeological and Historic Glass. West Sussex: Wiley and Sons 2013, pp. 413-441; Robert Theunissen, “Agate and Carnelian Ornaments from Noen U-Loke, an Iron-Age Settlement in Northeast Thailand” Bead Study Trust Newsletter (Winter 1997), pp. 4-7; idem,  “Agate and Carnelian Ornaments from Noen U-Loke, Northeast Thailand: Some Thoughts on their Social Function and ‘Value,'” Bead Study Trust Newsletter 32 (Winter 1998), pp. 8-11; idem, “Agate and Carnelian Beads and the Dynamics of Social Complexity in Iron Age Mainland Southeast Asia” Ph.D. diss., Department of Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, University of New England, Australia, 2003; idem,  “The agate and carnelian ornaments” in Charles Higham, Amphan Kijngam, and Sarah Talbot eds., The Origins of the Civilization of Angkor, Volume 2: The Excavation of Noen U-Loke and Non Muang Kao. Bangkok: The Thai Fine Arts Department, 2007, pp. 359-378; Robert George Theunissen, Peter Grave, and Grahame Bailey, “Doubts on Diffusion: Challenging the Assumed Indian origin of Iron Age Agate and Carnelian beads in Southeast Asia” World Archaeology 32 (1), pp. 84-105.

[2]  Charles Higham, Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia. Bangkok: River Books, 2002, pp. 197-229; Paul A. Lavy, “As in Heaven, So on Earth: The Politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara Images in Preangkorian Khmer Civilisation” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies vol. 34, no. 1( 2003), pp. 21-39; Himanshu Prabha Ray, “The Axial Age in South Asia: The Archaeology of Buddhism” in M. T. Stark ed., Archaeology of Asia. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005, pp. 303-323.; Miriam T. Stark, “The Transition to History in the Mekong Delta: A View from Cambodia” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 2, no. 3 (1998), pp. 175-204; idem, “Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian Cambodia” in I. Glover and P. Bellwood eds., Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004, pp. 89-119; David J. Welch, “Archaeological Evidence of Khmer State Political and Economic Organization” Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association 16 (1996), pp. 69-78.

Image: Glass beads from the site of Angkor Borei, Cambodia. Photo by Alison Carter.

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