Indian Beads

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This page last updated on 12/31/2017.

Copyright © 2001-2018 by Russ Meyer

Fossilized crinoid stems; AKA "Indian Beads."What we called Indian beads back in Illinois in the 1960's were rocks shaped like ribbed cylinders, about a ½" thick and ¾" long with a hole through the center.  I think my cousin was the one who coined this name; she had collected a large bowl of these beads to string into a necklace, totally convinced that the Indians had made them for that very purpose.  We were all a bit envious of her collection as we zealously hunted for Indian beads in the gravel alongside the road and by the railroad tracks, and maybe found a small handful each time.  Despite their beady appearance, I learned at a rock show one day what Indian beads truly were...I remember feeling absolutely dumbfounded when I walked through the fossil section and saw a giant Indian bead on display and read the caption on the card - our Indian beads were actually fossilized plant stems!!!  I think I fell in love with fossils that day, and still feel amazed when I find one.

A few years later I did find an authentic Indian bead laying in the gravel. It was a naturally round stone, dark grey in color, a little smaller than my thumbnail, and had a hole purposely drilled through the center of it.  I picked it up and rolled it around in my hand, and to my everlasting chagrin dropped it back into the gravel and never found it again.  25+ years later, while beach combing on the Washington coast near La Push, I found many round rocks about the same size - they were naturally rounded due to rolling up and down the beach in the surf.  I picked up handfuls of them and got to thinking about the bead I found in Illinois so many years ago and like to imagine this story:

Perhaps an Indian man traded a trapper/explorer some food for a handful of small round rocks and decided to drill holes in them to make a necklace for his wife.  One day, while searching for berries near a rocky place, the necklace caught on some branches, broke, and some of the stone beads were lost.  Years later this rocky area was turned into a gravel pit, and one of the lost beads that managed to survive all the passing years and the rock crusher unscathed, was scooped up along with the gravel being used to make roads.  Instead of being tarred into the roadbed, it rolled into the gravel alongside a road that ran through a small neighborhood in Illinois, where I chanced upon it one day - only to lose it myself in the end.

Makes me feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins chancing upon Sauron’s great ring of power in the tunnels of the goblins - only to lose it in the end.

jlb:August 2004


Russ' Note

Actually those Indian beads are the fossilized stem segments of an ancient crinoid called a "Sea Lilie."  Sea Lilies are actually animals, although they look like a plants.  They're related to present day sea urchins and starfish.  Sea Lilies were abundant in the shallow seas which covered Illinois 285-475 million years ago.  Those Indian beads you hold in your hand may be almost ½ billion years old!