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6.6.1 Bead

Compound eye bead, made of blue glass

circa 4th-2nd centuries BCE
British Museum

Bead, Asia, ca. 4th-2nd centuries BCE, British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This eye bead was made from blue glass somewhere in the Mediterranean or western Asia (Syria, Egypt, or Persia). Archaeologists found it in a tomb in China. They dated the contents of the tomb to between 300 and 100 BCE. This bead was buried before there was a land trade route from western Asia to China. Glass eye beads have also been found in graves in China, Southeast Asia, India, and Pakistan. Historians make the interpretation that ships began sailing from South Asia to Southeast Asia and China as early as 600 BCE. These historians say that there wasn’t just one Silk Road, but two Silk Roads, one by sea and one by land. Why do you think it is called an eye bead? Does this source provide evidence for the existence of two Silk Roads?

Glass made in the Mediterranean world and western Asia was a popular trade good throughout southern and eastern Asia. The Chinese focused on metalwork and pottery and did not have a developed tradition of fine glass manufacture. Since the beads are also found on the Indochina peninsula and the Southeast Asian islands in graves from the first millennium BCE, historians believe ships probably began to sail from different points in South Asia to Southeast Asia and eventually to China itself. Since the land route of the Silk Road was not established until approximately 50 BCE, these beads offer evidence that the sea route existed before that time. Students should understand that there were two Silk Roads and that the sea route always remained open, even when the land route was sometimes closed.