The “Tortugas” trade bead collection includes 40 intact and seven fragmentary clear quartz cut crystal beads, similar to examples originally referred to as ‘Florida Cut Crystal’, based on examples recovered from 16th-century Native American sites in Florida. The examples display between 24 and 40 facets ground into their surface.
Faceted cut crystal beads were largely produced from the end of the 13th century in the major cutting centers of Venice and Paris. Castille has recently been proposed as the source of cut crystal beads excavated on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, and could perhaps be the source of the “Tortugas” examples. However, it has been suggested that poorer quality examples, including those recovered from the Atocha and Margarita, originated in Spain.
Given the distinctive qualities of crystal beads, they are not thought to have functioned significantly within the mainstream New World trade orbit. The “Tortugas” wreck examples are thus seemingly of higher status than the rest of the ship’s bead assemblage, a point highlighted by the personal belongings of Queen Isabella, the wife of Philip II (r. 1554-98), who owned earrings adorned with prized rock crystal and a girdle decorated with 32 crystals.
While over 30 cut crystal beads have been found in English early James Fort (Virginia) contexts, just half a dozen cut crystal examples amongst the 69,000 glass trade beads were excavated from the Franciscan Mission of Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherines Island in Georgia, which served as the northernmost Spanish settlement along the Eastern seaboard for a century until 1680. This pattern reflects the comparative rarity of these products. Cut crystal beads and pendants, however, were common in the Mission San Luis de Talimali in modern Tallahassee, capital of the missions in western Florida and home to the largest Christianized Apalachee population in America c. 1656-1704 where a significant deposit was located within with the Chief’s house, the site’s sole Apalachee structure.
Southeastern Indians believed that crystal possessed unique mystical properties and examples have been discovered amongst shamans’ belongings. Further west, cut crystal beads reached the large Cherokee mound centers of the Upper Little Tennessee River in the 16th century, where the early Spanish explorers Hernando de Soto (1540) and Juan Pardo (1567) first made European contact. These beads are thought to have functioned as exotic Spanish gifts to the Indians. Crystal beads also occur on shipwrecks dated between 1550 and 1625, including the wreck of the 1622 Margarita.