PYU Pictorial & Essay

In the Summer of 1988, I received a call from Elizabeth Harris in Los Angeles. She was excited by the news that beads from Burma were in the radar. Burma had been a closed country for a long time, and it was unusual for anyone to go there, let alone to bring items out. I caught her excitement, as she explained to me that Judith Ubick, another Bead Society member, was working for a client who had a large quantity of ancient beads, that had been brought out of Burma. The person who sold them to the dealer said the “archaeologist” was not interested in the beads, and allowed him to have them. [Of course, we may never know how many details of the story are true, but some of it is fishy.]

Judy had been hired to use the beads in necklace designs for the new owner, who is an antiques dealer in Palos Verdes. This was no easy task, since many of the beads had impacted perforations – full of very hard dirt that was  difficult to remove. Nevertheless, Judy strung-up a nice variety of necklaces. It occurred to her that these were such great and unusual beads, and there were so many, that she convinced the owner to donate a selection to The Bead Museum.

That’s why Elizabeth was telephoning me. She and Judy decided it would be great if I were to come down, view the beads, and make the selection for The Museum. I was honored to participate. Two days later, I was on a plane to LAX, met Elizabeth, drove to Judy’s, and we began to go over the beads.

I was amazed for a number of reasons. The assortment included stone beads, such as crystals, agates, something that looked like green jade, carnelian, decorated beads (like those of India and Persia), and small pumtek beads. Also glass beads imitating the green stone beads and crystals, and Indo-Pacific beads.

In 1988 pumtek beads had only been around for five years, having come out of the Indian Hill Tribe region–to an audience that was amazed by them, sometimes compared them to Tibetan zi beads, and had a variety of ideas about their age and origin. If I may digress for a moment, all of this is pertinent to Pyu beads in a significant way. [By the way, Pyu is pronounced “pew”–not “PIEyou.”]

Pyu beads relate to pumtek beads, pumtek to zi, and zi to “etched” or “decorated agate beads” in general. I was first exposed to zi beads in 1970, reading The Universal Bead by Joan Erikson–who briefly mentioned the ‘mysterious tzi beads of Tibet.’

In 1974, in the premiere issue of The Bead Journal, Robert Liu wrote a piece on plastic imitations of zi beads. It wasn’t until 1979 that I was able (thanks to Liza Wataghani) to see a group of zi beads in real life, and soon thereafter decorated carnelian and black agate beads from Afghanistan (courtesy of Kate FitzGibbon and Andy Hale). Here’s a group of them from 1983.

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I had good opportunities to study and document these specimens. That was my beginning–because I have always said, “beads speak to me.” I feel I learn much more from an examination of beads than I do from reading something. And, in truth, most of the time when I read something about beads, I come away feeling the author is somewhat inadequate–either from lack of exposure to enough material, or because he or she fails to express the situation well and accurately. Nevertheless, between 1970 and 1980, I did read whatever was available to me about beads–a significant resource being The Bead Journal and Ornament. I also benefitted from discussions I had with Si Frazier (a mineralogist), and other involved bead researchers. Between 1980 and 1983, I voraciously read all of the bead literature I could find, working mainly at the San Francisco Public and UC Berkeley Libraries. Although my main lines of inquiry were about glass-beadmaking, I also read the works of authorities who dealt with Indian and Middle Eastern antiquities, and particularly stone beads.

So, in 1983, when pumtek beads showed up at my doorstep, I was surprised, but not unequipped. My friend Tony Anninos, at that time, was bringing art and artifacts back from India and the Himalayas.

He would always come to me first, to get my take on his latest finds, to help him make sense of the new wonders he had discovered. We were both blown away by these decorated stone beads, that were sort of like Tibetan zipyu 2 beads, but also very different. The story had them in the hand of tribal folks in Eastern India, who had formerly lived in Burma.

I went to UC Library, and proceeded to find several references to the traditional beads of the Chin and Hakachin, that were called “pumtek” beads. Until this time, no one even knew the name of these beads. Here’s a plate from N. Perry’s book, the Lakhers, from 1932, showing the pumtek necklace of a local chieftain named Rachi. The numbers are there because Perry recorded the names of each type, and what it was used for.

By 1985, pumtek beads had become almost commonplace, and I was able to purchase several whole strands and necklaces of them. I corresponded with David Ebbinghouse almost weekly about them, and we exchanged a lot of ideas. David intended to write a paper on pumtek beads, similar to his very good article on zi beads for Ornament. pyu 3However, he kept putting off publication, and I managed to have the first word. I wrote a short article for The Forum–the newsletter of The Society of Bead Researchers, showing the patterns I had documented, and citing a few references. Two of the big questions were, how did this sort of manufacture happen to take place in Burma (assuming this was the original homeland of these beads); and how did they relate to Indian “etched” agates and to Tibetan zi beads?

(By the way, 1985 was also the year I participated in the International Bead Conference in Long Beach, and gave a paper on imitation zi beads–particularly plastic imitations.)

So, when a group of ancient beads, such as these Burmese beads, became available for contemplation, it provided a LOT of interesting connections. And that’s because the group included beads that were clearly from India, and/or were Indian-inspired, had what appeared to be more-or-less typical “etched” carnelians and pumtek beads, AND had specimens that seemed to be intermediary between these two groups. Then, there were the other beads that no one had ever seen before, as well as familiar types that might be seen from almost anywhere in Southeast Asia.

As I mention above, I was given an opportunity to photograph beads from this large group, and to select a small group that was given to The bead Museum. A few months later, Judy contacted me again, and said the owner had had all of the necklaces made that she was interested in making–and that I would be allowed to buy some of the remaining beads for my specimen collection. So, in October, Walt Seifried and I went to Judy, and together we made a selection of beads, that we shared. About a year later, Walt bought/traded for all of the remaining beads, directly from the owner in Palos Verdes. I was with him when this transpired.

In the following photographs, I will show the variety of this first group of Pyu beads to come into America in 1988. These shots were taken by me at the first meeting, and then in October of the specimens I acquired.

STONE BEADS – This is a group of spherical stone beads, showing the variety of materials available to the beadmakers. Remember, at this time we didn’t even know the name “Pyu,” and had no clear idea from what period these beads belonged. We only knew they had been excavated together, in Burma.

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Quartz Crystal Beads – These crystal beads are beautifully made, and could easily be imports from India or Persia. Nevertheless, distinct original shapes (as we see in the central bead of the second image) suggest a local origin for at least some of them. The third photo of this group consists of amethyst beads.

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“Jade” or Green-Stone Beads – Quite a few stone beads are composed from a jade-green material that I believe is quartz, something like the typical green adventurine of India, but with a more even color and texture. Although Burma is the primary oldworld source for jadeite, I don’t think these beads are that. Once again, we begin here with the plain spherical beads–showing the variation of sizes and colors. As in all my photographs, the scale at the bottom is Metric, and the length of the whole ruler (when it can be seen) is six inches.

In addition to spherical shapes, green-stone beads can be seen to be barrels, ovals, tabular, and other shapes– as well as made from other greenish minerals.Among the distinctive shapes are these beads that were cut to resemble certain animals- -either real animals from local life, or fantasy animals from folklore. Here, we see what appear to be grubs (the lower left), several  elephants, and a fantasy beast, perhaps (second row, number five).

Many collectors have been attracted to the elephant-shaped beads, typical of Pyu production. Many of these are green-stone beads, but others are different varieties of quartz too. Note that the head of the elephant is seldom given much detail, and can even be just a flat side of the bead. In some cases, the eyes have been suggested with simple notches. Over-all, the elephants are stylized and suggested, rather than closely defined.

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Glass Imitating Green-Stone – We are going to consider glass separately, but let’s make a small exception here. As I poured over this group of several thousand beads, I began to notice that some of the “green-stone” beads were actually glass. However, they were sometimes so similar it was difficult to tell for sure–and god knows I didn’t have much time to sort or consider. Below is a shot (from my group) showing stone on the left, and glass on the right.

Most of these beads are glass. An interesting thing is that there are quite a few prismatic beads that look like they imitate tourmaline and/or emerald crystals (though the real versions of these beads were not found here). Perhaps the real crystal beads had already been removed…. Just a few years ago, my friend Jim Lankton went to Thailand, and found similar glass beads that intrigued him.

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Agate Beads – A broad variety of agate beads, many of which are banded, was seen in the group. Their typical characteristics, seen throughout much of Asia, implies an Indian origin for many specimens.

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From my specimen collection, I would be hard-pressed to prove these six beads are not Indian imports.

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This single tapered (or “fusiform”) bead would be equally at-home in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Persia, Afghanistan, or even Tibet. It is most likely an Indian bead, sent to Burma. But until we have a CLEAR idea what Burmese beadmakers knew, and when they knew it, no one can be sure.

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Carnelian Beads – The use of carnelian was commonplace, as exemplified by the thousands of specimens seen. Here, we see the group I acquired, that includes spherical shapes, as well as faceted types, cylinders, and even a small mollusk-shell effigy (unperforated)

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In contrast to the well-made spheres seen above, I noted a small group of beads that appeared to be more clumsy in manufacture. In these beads, one aperture is concave–indicating they had been drilled from one end, with the opposite end breaking away at the end of the drilling. This was not typical of India, but might be expected in a region that had not learned all of the tricks to beadmaking, or that was just learning them.

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In addition to regular geometric shapes and recognizable animal shapes, I noted other curious types. These four beads appear to have conformations that suggest molar teeth. These were fairly numerous.

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Decorated Agate Beads – Although early archaeology called these “etched agates,” we know this was a mistaken interpretation. I prefer the designation “chemically decorated stone beads,” or just “decorated agates.” The processes for making these beads was pioneered in the Indus Valley civilization, at Harappa, in ca 2,500 BCE. Horace Beck, in his pioneering article on these beads, defined three main periods of production: Early (ca. 2000 BCE); Middle (roughly the Roman Period); and Late (now known to encompass Sasanian and Islamic Period). Needless to say, the second we saw that there were decorated stone beads included among Pyu beads, I felt this would give us some reasonable idea of the general dates for the entire group. And what I saw suggested the Middle Period more than anything else. This was confirmed a few years later, when we came to understand these were Pyu beads.

In his original article, Beck described three types of decorated agate beads. Type I (the most common sort) has white lines on a red or black ground. (Beck mistakenly believed that these ground colors were “natural,” thoughpyu 20 we now know the carnelian was at the least heat-treated, and the black resulted from carbonization.) He described “Type II” beads as resulting from painting the whole bead white, and adding black lines. (This is another problematic assertion, that makes his classification system inadequate, but makes it easy to spot these beads in any group.) In his lifetime, Beck only saw about a dozen specimens of these beads–so he can be forgiven for making possibly a rash interpretation of the technology. Finally, at the time he wrote, in 1933, Beck had seen a single specimen he called a “Type III,” in which a carnelian bead had black lines on a red ground. In viewing the Burmese beads, another thing that intrigued us was the fact that the group included quite a few specimens of the more rare “Type II” and “Type III” beads–many more than Beck had been able to see in his whole life. Let’s look at some specimens.

The photograph shows simple stripe and zigzag designs. These might have been made at any time between ca. 2,500 BCE and CE 1000, but they are at-home in the Roman Period as much as anywhere. However, note the “Type II” “black-on-white” bead (row one, number three) and also the “Type III” “black-on-red” bead (row two, number five), that we’ll discuss shortly. And note also that several beads have yellow lines, rather than the typical white or off-white lines of most such beads.

In the next photograph, we see three beads that have simple line patterns. Longitudinal on the left, and around the circumference on the right and below. Note also that the upper beads are of the much more rare “Type II” (apyu 21s named by Beck), that appears to have black lines on a white ground. The lower specimen is an even more rare “Type III” with black lines on red carnelian.

I mentioned that a lot of the Pyu beads were types easily compared to pumtek beads, that in the 1980s came to us from Mizoram, India. The Pyu beads are much smaller than the majority of typical pumtek beads–and unlike pumtek beads consist of a variety of stones, including white agate and a more yellow material (whereas the nonprecious opal of pumtek beads is a buff or tan stone with the texture or pattern that reflects its origin in being fossil palmwood). I refer to the Pyu beads as being “proto-pumtek” beads. The eighteen beads seen below present the most common spherical shapes, with longitudinal lines, seen in both groups. Note also the specimens with yellow-orange lines, and that the ground colors vary from brown to black.

In this detail photograph of six beads, we see the previous style close-up, as well as a bead with horizontal stripes (equatorial rings), and two with diamond-shaped figures. Again, the ground colors are very black.

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The four beads below are similar, though decorated with yellow lines. And we can see that the left specimen has a geometrical net pattern well known from many Middle Period (Roman times) beads.

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In this detail, we can see a single proto-pumtek, that is brown with yellowish circles. This is a rare but documented pattern for pumtek beads.

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In this shot, we see two specimens that again mirror the patterns seen in later pumtek beads, as well as Tibetan zi beads- -consisting of parallel zigzags, flanked on the ends by a plain band or ring.

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This photo shows a close-up of a single “Type II” cylinder with four rings or bands.

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Here, we see a diamond tabular bead, of the “Type II” appearance, with black lines forming a “V” in each corner, with a central circle or diamond. This pattern is also reminiscent of designs found on later pumtek beads that are tabular diamonds.pyu 28

The six diamond tabular beads seen here, likewise resemble pumtek beads, with their typical cross patterns. One is a “Type II” bead.

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Oddly, both of these beads appear to be much like the previous, but are clearly recut. One may speculate that a broken diamond tabular has been ground down to a smaller bead. In the left specimen, we can see that the actual interior color of the stone is white (though not as white as the artificial lines of the design). In the right specimen, we can see that this cutting was performed a very long time ago, as evidenced by the decay of the material on ALL sides. For many years, I have speculated that “Type II” beads are really just “Type I” beads, in which the process failed. Due to such problems as over-hating or prolonged heating, the white lines turn black (or gray), and the body of the stone turns white (or another non-red or non-black color). The right specimen here is a failed “Type I” bead that has become nearly a “Type II.”

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These twelve barrel beads have diamond patterns, or zigzag lines, and again show lines that may be white or yellow.

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The bead below has a pattern typical of many pumtek beads, consisting of an equatorial band or ring, augmented by longitudinal lines that do not reach the ends, and with end rings.

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GLASS BEADS – The glass beads in this collection of Pyu beads included typical Indo-Pacific beads, such as might be found from any of some twelve locations in India/Southeast Asia–of which two or three would be local (Thailand and Vietnam). So, their appearance here is not surprising.

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We have already discussed the glass copies of green-stone beads, and the prismatic beads that resemble tourmaline or aquamarine crystals. Below are two glass beads that are “collared.” They have small protrusions on each end. Some similar glass beads were hot-pinched or constricted, to form the collars, and some were cut to shape. The collared bead is typical of numerous specimens recovered at Taxila, India, from sites dating near Roman times. It is not a stretch to assume that Indian specimens went to Burma, and incited a local tradition. So, the recovered beads probably include imported and local specimens.

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PYU Pictorial & Essay by Global Beads, Inc.