An Archaeologist Who Digs Beads

Editor’s Note: Dolores Elliott’s background may be in archaeology, but her lifelong love is Iroquois-beadwork antiques and collectibles.

The ethics of an archaeologist forbid collecting any of the things she might unearth in an excavation—arrowheads, potsherds and such—which is why Dolores Elliott, Worthpoint’s expert on Iroquois antique and collectible beadwork, began collecting Iroquois pincushions and frames. “You are not likely to dig up a pincushion,” Elliott said.

A lifelong resident of central New York State—homeland of the tribe—Elliott bought her first beadwork as a girl at the New York State Fair where she was showing her cows in a 4-H competition. She purchased a small red, heart-shaped pincushion, proclaiming STATE FAIR 1958, at the fair’s Indian Village as a gift for her mother.

Two Tuscarora heart pincushions, Elliott bought the smaller in 1958

After receiving a master’s degree in archaeology from Binghamton (New York) University, she moved to the country to homestead and raise a family, but her interest in ethnology, archaeology and the Iroquois never waned. She became involved with the non-profit Iroquois Studies Association, where she organized and directed the Otsiningo Powwow for 25 years.

In organizing various events and exhibitions, she became increasingly versed in beadwork—and a collector, as well. “I love collecting. My mother collected Indian baskets, so it’s in the blood,” Elliott said.

In the 16th century, Europeans brought sparkling glass beads to American that the Iroquois preferred over the less colorful ones they had made from natural materials.

By the 19th century, the Iroquois beadworkers were making a wide range of beaded items, including pincushions and purses, which they sold at Niagara Falls and other tourist spots, as well as at fairs and Wild West shows.

That tradition continues today as contemporary Iroquois beadworkers follow the practices of their ancestors while developing new beadwork styles. For a history of Iroquois beadwork, take a look at Elliott’s blog insights.

Mid-20th century Mohawk star pincushion with deer

While the craft is old and traditional, the Internet transformed the market for collecting beadwork. “The Internet has become a great research tool,” Elliott said. “I can talk to other collectors, they can talk to me, and we can share information.”

And it is also growing the market. “For many years, there was a small band of collectors,” Elliott said. “But now when I go on eBay, I’m seeing new people all the time.”

The cybermart has made prices more rational. “You go to an antique shop or a flea-market stall, and you might find one or two pieces that are generally overpriced because they really don’t know what they’ve got,” Elliott said. “But there are probably 100 pieces on eBay at any one time.”

A Mohawk boot with clear and red seed beads and sprengperlen in many colors

Elliott, who recently bought her 1,057th piece on eBay, said that interest has also gradually raised prices. When she was starting out 30 years ago, beadwork items could be bought for $5, but now they start at $40, and some pieces can fetch $600.

About 200,000 pieces of beadwork have been created in the last 200 years, Elliott estimated, and there are about 60 different forms—canoes, picture frames, heart-shaped pincushions, pocket-watch holders, check holders, strawberries.

For anyone interested in starting a beadwork collection, Elliott has a few tips.

Be wary of descriptions on the Web—unless there is a Dolores Elliott correction. Elliott often weighs in on the description of pieces up for sale. Many sellers don’t know what they have and often don’t even recognize a beaded piece as Iroquois beadwork.

Buy only items that have all their beads—“Some people think pieces can be repaired, but they can’t,” Elliott said. “The old beads are no longer available.”

Pick a style with which to start—The most popular, and expensive, are the beaded picture frames that can go for hundreds of dollars. The least expensive are little square pincushions that sell from $40 to $80. “This is really a question of taste,” Elliott said, “what kinds of designs, colors—antiques or modern pieces.”

The wide variety in shapes, sizes, colors and designs are fascinating. Elliott said that after having studied nearly 25,000 pieces of Iroquois beadwork, she has never seen two that were identical.

Over the last two centuries, many beautiful pieces have been created. Each one is a treasure to admire and to own. “There is so much tradition, history and skill in these pieces, they are wonderful,” Elliott said.

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