Glass Beads

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Personal adornments can come in many forms
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology, E428590

About Personal Adornments

Along with textiles, people have been decorating the body for hundreds of thousands of years. Personal adornments come in many shapes and sizes and can be used to signify different things to and about the individual wearing them. Personal adornments are often thought of in the form of jewelry, but they can also be textiles, headdresses, bags, or personal belongings that are important to the wearer. For example, many Native American tribes use beading to signify family ties or social status. Humans have often made jewelry and other adornments out of items that were available in their environment. Shells from the ocean and beads made of glass are two popular materials. They can be strung together or used to embellish textiles to show personal style or individualism. Personal adornments have also been used to signify leadership or to represent rites of passage. In some cultures they are used to protect the wearer against evil spirits. What sort of personal adornments do you wear that have meaning?

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

Related Resources
Researchers take detailed notes about objects found during their excavations
Courtesy of Stephen Loring, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH

Practicing Archaeology

The discipline of archaeology has changed dramatically since the time when average people were searching for strange or exotic objects. Today's archaeologists carefully excavate sites by recording the context and stratigraphic relationship of the objects they recover. Archaeologists are careful to take detailed notes during the entire process. When people continue to live in the same location for a long period of time, they build on the remains of those who lived there before, thus creating layers of remains that can be studied to learn how people lived and how they interacted with other groups. Excavation, however, is only part of the process of archaeology. Today the archaeologist may use techniques of the chemical or physical sciences to study materials used in the past and to determine where they were made and if they were brought into a site from somewhere else. Another approach is that of experimental archaeology where archaeologists attempt to recreate the objects of the past to understand the process by which the objects were made. Examples of experimental archaeology might be making tools (e.g., flintknapping) or by attempting to recreate some special type of pottery.