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Ancient Bling Went Green

When agriculture arose about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East, fields weren’t the only green things cropping up. People’s accessories were growing greener too, according to a comprehensive study of stone beads—the bling of yestermillennia—unearthed at eight dig sites in Israel.

The sites are between 8,200 and 13,000 years old. Of the 221 beads found there, report Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer of the University of Haifa and Naomi Porat of the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem, 89 beads , or 40 percent, are made of green stone, including malachite, turquoise, and fluorapatite.

The collections mark the first substantial appearance of stone beads, green ones in particular, anywhere in the archaeological record. In the hunter-gatherer societies that preceded the dawn of agriculture, beads — typically of antler, bone, tooth, ivory, or shell — were white, yellow, brown, red, or black, with only a few examples of green soapstone.

The minerals used to fashion the green beads discovered in Israel came from as far away as northern Syria and Saudi Arabia. Thus, people must have gone to great lengths to obtain stones of the latest color.

Bar-Yosef Mayer and Porat propose that with the advent of agriculture, the color of young leaves came to symbolize fertility and good health. Green beads, they say, were probably used as fertility charms and amulets against the evil eye, just as they are today in many parts of the Middle East.

The study was detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.