A total of 258 intact and fragmentary beads manufactured from glass, stone, clay, wood, palm nut and bone/ivory were recovered from the “Tortugas” shipwreck (around 34% glass, 17% cut crystal, 14% ceramic, 35% organic). The majority of the glass beads are monochrome faceted examples referred to as “charlottes” today. Such beads were once used by European colonists as gifts and for bartering amongst the indigenous peoples of the New World. While 16th and 17th-century Spain largely used beads in rosaries and not as accessories, they rigorously exploited the indigenous cultures’ perceived value of these wares.
Beads were already deemed essential for gifts and exchange when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, and continued to serve an important role throughout the conquest and settlement of the New World. A strong bead-making tradition pre-existed prior to Spain’s arrival, especially in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and amongst the Native Americans of North America. Spain, however, substituted indigenous production with a continuous flow of relatively cheap glass beads, assuming total control over sourcing and imports.
The “Tortugas” bead assemblage consists of 45 monochrome faceted Venetian glass beads that are barrel or spherical in shape. Most are translucent cobalt blue, while others range from turquoise to light brown, amber and deep red. Most exhibit three to five randomly spaced facets, while two red beads feature 13 and 17 facets. The red color, in particular, is quite unusual and was highly desired. A dark navy blue spherical bead with three irregularly placed facets retains a small fragment of its original metal stringing wire within the central bore. These products are considered to have been the most expensive class of small faceted beads. They could be threaded onto necklaces but were often used in embroidery. The “Tortugas” examples, however, appear too large for the latter purpose.
By 1630 Spain had seemingly stopped importing “charlottes”, possibly due to their relatively high cost or simply because they had gone out of fashion. The “Tortugas” examples are significant examples dated towards the end of the period of production.