Red Coral beads Necklace

Red Coral Beads–Tanner's Quest

clara_lee_tanner_smOne of our summer projects in the ASM Library/Archives is to complete the final processing of the papers of (1905-1997), noted authority on the arts and crafts of Southwestern Indians. Tanner wrote six scholarly books and was an instructor in the UA Department of Anthropology for more than thirty years. In getting her papers ready for scholars to use, we learn a lot about Tanner’s research habits and about how scholars worked in pre-Internet days.

I am fortunate to have the assistance of Nicole Becwar, a graduate library school student. Working together she and I are constantly reminded of the fascination of archives. Unlike books where title pages, chapters, and index are always in their predictable locations, each time we open a box in the archives we must be ready for the spring-loaded surprise to jump out.

We got one of these special treats when we opened Tanner Box # 35 and found a folder titled “Coral and spiny oyster, notes and correspondence.” Among the papers we found tiny envelopes containing small red beads. Tanner wanted to learn more about the red beads she saw in Indian necklaces and bracelets. Were the beads made of glass, ceramics, or of a particular mollusk shell? Were they gathered or traded by Southwest Indian craftsmen? How widespread was their use? And most of all, what was the cultural or religious significance of the lovely red beads?

Tanner beadsTanner did not have access to the tools modern researchers take for granted. For this project she typed more than sixty letters asking for suggestions, knowledge, and opinions on coral. ASM has copies of her outgoing letters as well as those she received, heavily annotated in her red pencil. She kept a careful register of the letters so that she could meticulously track her efforts to get information from individuals who might have excavated, sold, bought, made jewelry with, or studied coral beads. She threw a wide research net. Of course she wrote to conchologists, some of whom contradicted each other in stating whether or not red coral was found in the Pacific Ocean. One of her better sources was the noted California scientist Donald B. Tower who only a few years previous had written “The Use of Marine Mollusca and Their Value in Reconstructing Prehistoric Trade Routes in the American Southwest.”

Quite a few of Tanner’s sources directed her to the same article by Arthur Woodward, “Notes on Coral in the Southwest” (Masterkey volume XXI, number 1, January 1947), but this short piece did not satisfy her curiosity. She wrote to practicing Indian jewelers and to the Hubbell and other trading posts throughout the Southwest. Harvey House wrote back that they were selling coral necklaces of five strands for $80 and suggested that they obtained the beads from Venetian importers. Tanner immediately wrote to the Italian consulate in San Francisco asking for names. This clue enabled Tanner to clearly map the trail of beads from the American Southwest to the importer F. Vitelli in New York City, the major importer of Italian coral beads.

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