Lantana bead collection

Very recently RAMM received a generous donation of Lantana beads from Dr Ann O’Hear.  Lantana beads are West African red stone beads. They are typically made from red jasper, banded agate, chalcedony or carnelian. These beads are made by Yoruba artisans within Ilorin, in south-western Nigeria. Items from this collection will be included in a new suite of Africa displays in 2018.

Colour photograph of a bracelet made from red, cylindrical beads.

They were predominantly bought by chiefs and men of wealth. Lantana were used in regalia, particularly after the import of coral declined. The production of these beads greatly increased toward the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This could have been to replace regalia lost during wars in the 19th century. There may have even been the desire to reinvigorate royal authority, which had lost power during colonial rule.

Whatever the reason, this new found demand soon ceased, with a sharp decrease in demand for lantana beads happening by the 1920s. There were still some bead makers operating in the 1950s, but the industry has never recovered from this fall. The production of these beads is painstaking work as it is time-consuming and requires strength and skill.

The craft production of these beads is gender-based, as with many craft activities occurring in Nigeria, and throughout the world. In Ilorin itself, pottery manufacturing, dyeing, spinning, and the weaving of broad cloth on the upright loom have long been female roles, whilst the weaving of narrow cloth on a horizontal loom was done by men.

Hidden female roles

During the production of beads, there is some exception to these overarching rules. There is evidence of ‘hidden’ female involvement in the production process. However, it is an industry that males have retained control over. The evidence for female involvement suggests at their use as cheap labour, with their main tasks being strenuous repetitive task.  However, men did the initial shaping, piercing, overseeing and garnered the profit and prestige of the activity (O’Hear 1998: 122).

But what makes an activity a male or female occupation? If we look back through time, the tasks that require greater strength are often designated to men. This can be seen in the links that archaeologists and ethnographers draw between men and metallurgy. This begins with the idea that men are the dominant sex within the ancient world with many societies only allowing men to participate in religious rituals and the making of objects for these rituals. Many people associate innovative and labour intensive activities with men, whilst the labour extensive activities with a low yield fall to women. If this were something that is simply contained within the past, then it may not require a second thought. However, these ideas of gender-based roles are something that has continued to influence modern day, in craft activities and in general life.

Gender roles

If we focus on the production of lantana beads themselves, it is clear that the more innovative and prestigious roles are still held by men, whilst women take on the monotonous and low-skill tasks. This is despite the fact that these beads are now bought by women in Ilorin, specifically old women and brides. This transition from being sold to women and to groups other than the Yoruba suggests that the production roles would also have shifted. This is not the case. Logically, when something is being created for a specific group, then a voice from that group would be taken into account or involved in a design capacity, but this clearly does not happen during lantana production. Although these beads are no longer mass produced, the roles for other craft production services and other jobs have not changed. Work segregation by sex also limits autonomy and recognition of individual women and men (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2015: 25). This limiting works both ways: we lose female input in male industries when it could be invaluable. It also discourages men from exploring a supposedly female controlled industry. It not only restricts women but prevents equality (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2015: 25).

By assuming gender roles and production roles are inextricably linked, we risk perpetuating stereotypes on people who attempt to cross these gender and occupation boundaries. This is something that we as people have fallen into a habit of doing. By looking back at the roles that were designated to each gender we build a wall between occupations, one that not only prevents people but also ideas from moving between groups. This is also a time when gender and sex are considered separate aspects of a person’s identity. Gender is the cultural, socially-constructed notion of the differences between the two sexes, while the sex of an individual refers to the biological differences between men and women. Therefore, we must keep in mind that often when we refer to ‘gender-based’ roles we are in fact referring to the social roles that the two sexes are considered to have. This is something that is likely to change, as the idea of gender as a fluid notion is explored by different groups.


To briefly conclude, the designation of roles in craft production based on sex is something that hasn’t disappeared from most societies. It has developed to an extent with many sexes switching roles throughout history, for example in Ijebu where women weave prestige cloths on the upright loom today, but historically it was a man’s role. There are also instances of both sexes sharing a role, but not to a great extent. Without this sharing of work, there will always be an element of inequality between sexes. When discussing craft production and general occupational roles something we must bear in mind is gender, especially when comparing previous years to modern day, as this term no longer refers to the strict categories of sex but is based upon societal constructs.


Almamari, B. 2015: What Happens When Women Dominate Traditional Craft Industries: The Omani Case SAGE

Blier, S.P. 1998: Royal Arts of Africa, Laurence King

Hesmondhalgh, D. & Baker, S. 2015: Sex, Gender and work segregation in the cultural industries The Sociological Review John Wiley & Sons Ltd

O’Hear, A. 1998: Lantana Beads: Gender Issues in their Production and Use Beads and Bead Makers Berg Oxford International Publishers

Romano, M.L. 2012: The Special Relationship Between Men and Metallurgy: A Discussion on Gender-Based Assumptions During Craft Production Using Archaeological and Ethnographic Examples Track Changes Issue 3

V-Campus: Distinctions between sex and gender

Wright, R. 1996: Gender and Archaeology University of Pennsylvania Press

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