Though there’s some debate over the extent to which ancient beads are evidence of advanced syntactical language, the cross-cultural importance of beads goes so far back that much of its meaning has been lost to time. Since antiquity, humans have used beads to reflect cultural identity and social status.
Fast forward to today—and today, specifically, being Mardi Gras—and New Orleans is arguably the planet’s most bead-drenched city. (The environmental implications, it seems, are no match for tradition.)
“It is hard to explain bead lust to the uninitiated,” the archaeologist Laurie Wilkie wrote in her book, Strung Out on Archaeology. “There are psychology studies that demonstrate that humans are hardwired to be attracted to shiny things ... It is the rare individual who can watch the distribution of beads at Mardi Gras and not want some for themselves.”
Mardi Gras has been called the “season of madness” in New Orleans. Its “lunacy,” The New York Times wrote in 1960, quoting a London newspaper reporter, amounts to “the biggest, brightest, brassiest and most whole-hearted exhibition of public foolery on Earth.”
The ritual has survived Hurricane Katrina, Prohibition, and the Civil War, but its roots go much deeper than that. The earliest Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, an import from France, date back to the 17th century. The first krewe, the local term to describe the clubs that organize Mardi Gras festivities, was founded in 1858. By around 1870, krewes were throwing trinkets, baubles, and candies to crowds during parades. A decade later, they were throwing medallions.
Beads occupy a paradoxical space at today’s Mardi Gras celebrations. They can be both the centerpiece of festivities and the trimming. They’re prized objects, and yet many strands of beads—or pairs, to use the proper New Orleans lingo—are discarded, metallic snakes left curled in gutters. They’re simultaneously coveted and cast aside. They’re also, Wilkie says, an archaeological artifact hiding in plain sight.
Wilkie, in her book, focuses on the bead samples she has “excavated” from Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans over the years—including cheap machine-made plastic beads, of course, but also unusual and even unique items: fine strands of hand-strung glass beads, the sort you’d find at a Mardi Gras parade half a century ago, along with more contemporary varieties. She’s catalogued hand-painted resin on red and gold silk cords, hand-painted medallions suspended by metal loops, and more. She’s also noted how beads have changed over time, focusing on throws from Bacchus Krewe.
Strands have become longer, in general. Machine-made beads largely replaced hand-strung beads. Glass was replaced with plastic. Opaque plastic medallions gave way to transparent plastic ones. Medallions gradually got bigger and bigger. Most recently, beaded strands for medallions have been swapped out for satin cords. These details all factor into a deeper understanding of a celebration that’s, for all its lunacy, much more complex than it may appear.