Pumtek – Burmese beads of petrified wood. By Sarah Corbett

Pumtek – Burmese beads of petrified wood. By Sarah Corbett

There are many types of petrified wood in Burma. Petrified wood is wood which has been turned to stone. This is the result of a particular type of fossilization. The trees or tree like plants having completely transitioned to stone by a process of permineralization, all of the organic material having been replaced with minerals. Unlike other fossils which are generally impressions or compressions, petrified wood is a three dimensional representation of the original organic matter.

Pumtek beads are made from this Burmese petrified wood. They are also known as ‘buried thunder-bolt beads’.

The origins of these beautiful rare beads begins over 1000 years ago. Made by the Pyu people , a Buddhist cultural croup characterised as peaceful and Affluent. The pyu people made the finest petrified wood beads and the decline of the Pyu period is parallel to the decline in the quality of the bead production.

In Burma the beads are referred to as Chin beads, beads originating in the Chin province in the North West of Burma. (Myanmar).

The décor of the Pyu beads is etched onto the bead. Geometric lines are the mainstay of the decorative style. A frequently seen symbol is the cruciform, a symbol originating in Indian Buddhism. This symbol represents to Buddhists ‘The four noble truths of the Buddha.’

This symbol unifies Buddhists societies from along the vast trade routes, despite their differences of customs and languages.

As with any wonderful and rare old adornment copies of these beads abound with 20th century versions of various quality being made and traded.

Ancient Pumtek beads dating from 800BC – 200AD are often tiny, and made from opalized palm wood. This material can be verified by light testing, these beads will fluoresce.

Later versions of the Pumtek bead are often made with other types of fossilized wood – this is a general guideline , as versions of ancient Pumtek beads exist which are made from other types of fossilized wood.

The Etched designs adorning these beads are still a mystery and no one knows exactly the process used to make the décor. Legends abound! One such legend tells us that “ a man possessed a goat, and according to the food he gave to the goat its dung could become Pumtek beads… a good food produced good beads and vica versa!”

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