Glass of Columbus

As Digital Asset Specialist at the Museum, I have the pleasure of working with our Research Scientist Emeritus, Dr. Bob Brill, as he digitizes some of the materials in his personal archive.  Dr. Brill’s history with the Museum stretches back almost 40 years, and he has traveled all over the world for his work conducting chemical analyses and other scientific investigations of ancient glass.  It should come as no surprise, then, that he has shared some incredible materials and stories with me.

One such gem is this slide (bib no. 127878). At first glance, it may not look like much – four green glass circles.  These aren’t just any pieces of glass, however.  These are four green glass beads excavated from San Salvador Island, the Bahamas, from the site of Christopher Columbus’s first landfall in the New World.

Christopher Columbus’s journal entry from October 12, 1492, records that land was (finally) spotted on the horizon at sunrise.  This land is now believed to be San Salvador Island.  Columbus’s ships sailed around the island later that day, and Columbus noted that local inhabitants rode out in boats to greet them.  The European sailors traded small trinkets with them, he wrote, including small glass beads, shoe buckles, snippets of coins, and bits of broken crockery.  While these items had little value to the Europeans, to the native inhabitants of the Bahamas, who lacked glassmaking technology and metallurgy, such things would have been remarkable.

Almost 500 years later, in the 1970s, an excavation was underway at San Salvador Island.  At the place traditionally held to be Columbus’s landing site, archaeologists uncovered small glass beads, including the ones shown in Dr. Brill’s slide; coinage that was later dated to 1472; and shoebuckles.  The lead in the glass beads was shown to have come from Spain.

Although four green glass circles don’t seem impressive at first glance, these beads actually have incredible historical significance – they were likely among the first items ever traded between residents of the New World and the Old.  And they’re also a reminder to never judge an image (or a slide!) by your first impression.

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  1. If you’re curious, scientists were able to determine that the lead in the glass came from Spain by using a technique called lead isotope analysis. Even though atoms of a particular element always have the same number of protons, the number of neutrons in the nucleus can vary, and these variants are called isotopes. Lead mined from different parts of the world contains different isotope “signatures” – the ratios of isotopes in lead from different mines are not the same. Thus, isotope analyses can give scientists a pretty good idea of what region was the source of the lead ore used in glassmaking. The chemical analyses and lead isotope analyses were conceived and conducted by the Museum as part of the Scientific Research Department’s research program.

    • Megan,
      I was one of the lucky excavators to find some of the possible “Columbus” items including one of these green glass beads. I was studying under the mentorship of Dr. Charles Hoffman at Northern Arizona University in the 1980’s and he convinced me to participate in two of the summer archaeological field schools on San Salvador. I was web searching for a paper Dr. Hoffman wrote when I came across your post. I was thrilled to see the picture of those green glass beads after holding one so many years ago… brought back many great memories.

      p.s. My wife’s family is from Painted Post, so I’ve been blessed to visit the Corning Museum a few times.

      Best Regards,
      Brian Withrow, Lt Col (ret)
      Stafford, VA

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