NUBIAN MOSAIC FACE BEADS
The Enigma of Variations
Artforms in many cultures are often ritualized and follow fairly rigid formats, none more seemingly so than early Roman mosaic face canes. Those studying early Roman tabular and spherical glass face beads believed these figural full-frontal faces represented two aspects of Medusa: as a Gorgon, with rod-like striations as hair, depicting stylized snakes, or as a woman, with long, black flowing hair, a neck with necklace and bust (Liu 2008). This interpretation was based on studies of the Medusa image in jewelry (Karlin 2007). Such canes are exclusively applied to beads, except for one instance each of face canes being used in a glass spindle whorl (Liu 1976), a whorl fragment, in a glass patella cup and in fragments of agate glass (Goldstein 1979: pl. 24, no. 497; 187). Some two thousand years ago, the ability to make such luxury glass mosaics was likely limited to a few glass craftsmen working in Ptolemaic-Roman Egypt, Syria and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East, although no workshop for figural mosaic canes has ever been found, nor their glassworking debris or canes. Some Egyptian glass workshop sites did contain mosaic glass/canes (Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994: 27). Early and late Roman face beads, and other related figural mosaics are found in the Middle East and Europe, especially in Crimea and around the Black Sea (Liu 2008; Stern and Schlick-Nolte 1994; Stout 1985).
Recently, while editing a manuscript on ancient Nubian jewelry, I saw for the first time the tabular mosaic face beads excavated at Meroë (present day Sudan) by George Reisner in the 1920s (Dunham 1963; Markowitz and Doxey 2014a). While I have known of their existence since the 1970s, this cache of glass face beads from a rare excavated and datable context had never been on exhibit, although Stern and Schlick-Nolte (1994: 410) and Stout (1986) listed them among early Roman face beads. Tabular face beads have also been excavated from Herculaneum, inundated by lava in A.D. 79 (Gore 1984). Stout (1986: Fig. 4) mapped about twenty-two finds of datable early tabular and spherical Roman face beads, placing them to the first century after Christ. More recent finds were from Palmyra, in Syria, and in Bahrain.