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‘5000 Years of Beads’ on display in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities

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New temporary exhibition in the galleries on ‘Archaeology of the Netherlands’

The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, RMO) in Leiden has brought together the finest beads from its collections in a new exhibition entitled ‘5000 Years of Beads’. Visitors can enjoy hundreds of colourful necklaces and beads, which give an impression of how beads were used over the centuries and what they symbolised. Most of these objects have been excavated in the Netherlands, although they come from all over the world, and are made of all kinds of material, ranging from wood to gold. ‘5000 Years of Beads’ will be on display until 7 May 2023. Ticket reservation via

‘5000 years of beads’ presents beads as items of fashion and expressions of culture, examining the questions of who wore what, when and why. The exhibition displays beads through the ages, from Prehistory until the 17th century. It includes beads from 5000 year-old megalithic tombs, strings of amber beads from the Iron Age, Roman melon beads, Merovingian grave goods, Medieval prayer beads and waste from Amsterdam’s large-scale bead production around 1600. Prominent in the exhibition are the Early Middle Ages, with long strings full of beads of glass and precious stones, many of which were imported from the Middle East, Mediterranean or Scandinavia.

It has long been assumed that beads cannot be dated well, but new excavation techniques and technical analyses of their materials have made identification of their origins and age increasingly possible. Research has shown that beads were used to designate phases of life, family connections and social status. Being both valuable and easy to transport, beads were travellers and souvenirs in all periods. Beads reflect the world.

Most of the beads in the exhibition come from the museum stores. On display are beads from the Netherlands and other museum collections. The exhibition also features loans from the Amsterdam and Bois-le-Duc archaeological services and various private collections. Late medieval prayer beads are accompanied by a magnificent, illuminated manuscript with images of rosaries made of blood coral; a special loan by the University Library of the Free University of Amsterdam.

The beads are displayed according to themes, such as ‘Always and Everywhere’, ‘For Man and Animal’, ‘Piety and Prayer’ and ‘Eye beads and beady eyes’. Images of people wearing beads, including a statue of a Mesopotamian prince, provide additional context. Visitors will also encounter personal stories associated with contemporary strings of beads, such as a Tasbih and a ‘Bravery Cord’ (documenting juvenile cancer treatment), and can leave behind their own bead-related stories. Floor Kaspers’ fluid modern bead art connects the bead theme with the present day, with works such as her still growing ‘Covid Timeline’.

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication ‘5000 jaar kralen’, written by Mette Langbroek and Annemarieke Willemsen (in Dutch, €12.50, ISBN 978-90-71201-48-6, 88 pages), which has been partly financed by the Sigrid van Roodefonds for publications on archaeological jewellery, the Stichting N. van Ballegooijen Fonds and the Stichting Het Nederlands Gebruiksvoorwerp.

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