The Archaeologist Who Studies Mardi Gras Beads

One of America’s biggest parties has much deeper roots than it appears.

Women wearing unicorn masks scream for beads during the weekend before Mardi Gras in New Orleans, in 2013. (Sean Gardner / Reuters)

Before humans wrote their histories in words, many of them told stories with beads.

Some archaeologists believe that a scatter of pea-sized shell jewelry more than 75,000 years old are evidence that prehistoric humans had well-developed language, including advanced grammatical structure—communication at least sophisticated enough so that they could have described the symbolism of these beads to one another.

Neolithic figurines were made to wear necklaces, and in ancient Egypt, beads were offered in exchange for the promise of an afterlife. Across many cultures, they have been used as wearable tokens—small but powerful adornments believed to encourage vitality, fertility, and wealth.

The ancient Chinese hoisted heavy cash strings over their shoulders, with coins threaded like beads on a necklace. Humanity’s earliest computers can be traced back to the abacus, which used beads to make sense of complex data. More recently, Native Americans used beads to write stories. Strands of shells and colorful beaded belts were apparently used as key documents to record treaties. The language savant William James Sidis claimed, in the 1930s, that Native Americans could even write letters to one another in beaded languages.

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.

To Wilkie, the “throwing game”—the gift economy that powers Mardi Gras, and involves the throwing of beads from floats to people who may or may not offer beer, other beads, or flashes of nudity in exchange for them—has parallel roots in ancient feasting traditions.

“Archaeologists interpret feasts as having different social purposes,” Wilkie wrote in her book. “Many suggest that large-scale feasting at a communal level was/is a means of political maneuvering between factions competing for political power.”

“Make no mistake, while feasting is the giving of the gift of food and entertainment by the wealthy members of a society to their peers and underlings, it is a form of economic exchange, with wealth being redistributed from the top of the social hierarchy to those below,” Wilkie wrote in her book. “These are gifts that come with clear obligations—expectations of loyalty in times of warfare, expectations of fulfillment of tribute obligations, and a whole range of other social obligations.”

In the Internet age, Wilkie’s approach has other fascinating implications. The cataloguing of ephemeral shared moments—whether feasts, parades, or protests—will be increasingly important as major events and the collective processing of those events unfold in concert. As global connectivity amplifies the thing that’s happening as it happens, contextualizing fleeting moments will become even more difficult.

It’s hard enough to pin down complex forces at play even when you’re looking for them. For instance, subversions of power are one major theme at Mardi Gras, where inverting the normal order—with, say, nudity—becomes a way of highlighting otherwise unseen forces, or, as Wilkie puts it, “making more visible the economic, social, racial, and gender hierarchies that shape contemporary American society.”

Which helps explain part of what makes Mardi Gras so fascinating to her on a scholarly level: “Archaeology is also about rendering things visible,” she said. It’s a way of connecting materials that don’t always seem related, tracing social connections in the physical world.

Mardi Gras beads, to the uninitiated, are just chintzy party favors doomed for the landfill. But they’re also a link to the past, a symbol of a celebration that’s been going on for as long as recorded history.