Fort McCoy News Jan. 26, 2018

Fort McCoy ArtiFACT: Red glass bead

Archaeology work has been ongoing at Fort McCoy for more than 30 years.

During the summer 2017 archaeological excavation at Stillwell Crossing on Fort McCoy, a tiny but highly informative artifact was recovered: a single red glass trade bead less than 2 millimeters in diameter.

Small glass seed or embroidery beads of this type are present throughout the trading period among European and Native American groups. Embroidery beads grew more common in the 19th century, and they dominate glass bead collections of this period across the Northern Plains, such as Fort Pierre Chouteau, S.D., circa 1832-1855, and Fort Clark State Historic Site, N.D., circa 1822-1861.

Pictured is a red glass bead found on Fort McCoy during an archaeological dig. The bead is typical of those commonly traded with Native American communities during the 19th century.
Pictured is a red glass bead found on Fort McCoy during
an archaeological dig. The bead is typical of those
commonly traded with Native American communities
during the 19th century.
Photo by Colorado State University
Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands

These beads were primarily used for embroidering designs onto clothing, moccasins, bags, and other textile or leather objects.
To find out more about the origins and age of the glass bead, archaeologists analyzed it using a minimally invasive chemical compositional analysis method. A laser is used to remove about 100 square micrometers of sample material, which is approximately the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

The result is a chemical fingerprint that can be compared to glass bead compositions from the Midwest. Using this comparison, analysts can potentially clarify the date of the beads' manufacture because compositional shifts in European glass recipes have been documented.

For reference, analysts compared the composition of the Stillwell Crossing bead to studies of late 18th and 19th century glass trade beads from other archaeological sites in North America. The Fort McCoy bead contains relatively high quantities of lead and potassium, both of which were ingredients in some Venetian glass recipes at that time.

To obtain the red color in the glass, Venetian artisans included trace amounts of gold, which was also found in the Fort McCoy bead.

Further comparison showed the sodium levels of the Stillwell Crossing bead were similar to those measured in beads found in Ontario (but possibly produced in Venice) and estimated to be dated to circa 1820-1860. Through careful comparison the chemical elements, analysts learned that this tiny red glass bead was made in the early to mid-19th century, most likely in Venice.

Visitors and employees are reminded they should not collect artifacts on Fort McCoy or other government lands and leave the digging to the professionals. Any individual who excavates, removes, damages, or otherwise alters or defaces any historic or prehistoric site, artifact, or object of antiquity on Fort McCoy is in violation of federal law.

The discovery of any archaeological artifact should be reported to the Directorate of Public Works Natural Resource Branch at 608-388-4793.

   (Article prepared by Colorado State University Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands and Directorate of Public Works Natural Resources Branch.)