Modern Mardi Gras And Ancient Rituals Part.2


KK: Your book makes it sound like beads have stages of production—or, really, stages of their use life. They are manufactured, racked up on floats, thrown, collected, and discarded. Can you explain how studying modern beads is useful to archaeologists studying ancient artifacts?

LW: A lot of archaeologists focus either on the production side of artifacts or the consumption side. Objects have histories (some people will say “itineraries”) that are useful to consider. A lot can happen between the time something is made and something ends up in the archaeological record, and consumption and production don’t begin to cover it.

106114320 f87ca8ad83 bBacchus beads. (Image by Flickr user Mark Gstohl, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.)

KK: You also discuss in your book the stylistic evolution of different bead forms, like the Bacchus medallions on bead strands. To what extent is this evolution driven by local customs, and to what extent is it driven by external market forces, such as cost of production or country of origin of the beads?

LW: I think we see a convergence of all those factors coming in play. I don’t know that I would use the term evolution, though, to describe the change through time because evolution is responsive and adaptive and has reproductive implications for a species. I think changes in the beads were largely driven by the need to provide more beads without increasing the weight and to do this as cheaply as possible. Technological changes also provided windows for aesthetic and design innovations and creativity. People still collect the Czechoslovakian glass beads that were popular in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (despite anti-Communist sentiments), but are less interested in the Japanese and Indian glass beads that came in during the 1950s and 1960s. The Japanese and Indian glass beads were cheaper and lighter, but apparently didn’t look right as Mardi Gras beads. When plastic beads began to be manufactured in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, it was plastic beads that looked like the Czech beads that were favored. Taste and expectation are difficult to measure, but they are clearly shaping the look of beads through time.

KK: The Gulf Coast is famous for its series of parades, from here in Pensacola (FL) on Saturday, to New Orleans (LA) on Tuesday. Does the “archaeological assemblage” of beads differ in the different cities and states? And you’ve also mentioned attending with your daughter; does the assemblage vary between what kids get and what adults get as throws?

LW: I’ve attended parades in Biloxi, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Roads and other small community parades in Louisiana. I haven’t done Mobile or Pensacola, but maybe before the book goes through a second edition! Kids get lots of beads, and often beads that adults would love. They also get more toys. But the funniest thing to watch is the re-gifting of what adults would consider “bad” beads (too short to fit easily over the head or very small beads or obviously broken and repaired) to children. Adults see a kid at a parade and dump all the stuff they don’t want on them. Kids are happy generally to take everything handed to them up until about age 5, then, they catch on and become more discerning. As a parent, its actually kind of sad seeing your kid become a little jaded. All the best throws we’ve received have been given to my daughter.

KK: My favorite “throw” is a string of skull-shaped beads; I’ve gotten four or five of them over four parades here in Pensacola and, because I’m a bioarchaeologist, I collect anything skull-related. What is the most interesting “throw” you’ve ever gotten from New Orleans’s Mardi Gras, and why is it interesting to you? 

LW: In terms of the things I’ve most loved—and I’ll admit having strong affection for some of these things—it has been the hand-made things that people will sometimes throw. On my desk right now I have a hot pink coconut that was suspended on a large strand of metallic hot pink beads. The coconut, which has drill holes from draining out the liquid, has “WTF!” in glitter letters written on it. I actually caught it in Baton Rouge after Katrina. It perfectly expresses my thoughts many days. In terms of New Orleans, from Zulu, I caught a strand of beads that someone had decorated by twisting small segments of beads around the main strand to make a very fancy looking purple gold and green necklace. It clearly took time and effort to make, and I love seeing it as a special gift from a stranger who wanted their Mardi Gras throws to be something more.

KK: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add about your work with the archaeology of Mardi Gras? 

LW: I would say if you haven’t been to one of the Gulf Coast’s Mardi Gras celebrations, go! They are a truly unique, American festival. New Orleans has a reputation for seediness at Mardi Gras which is undeserved—parts of New Orleans are always seedy because certain tourists want it that way—but these are celebrations that weave their way through many neighborhoods where families sit and stand together to enjoy the party.