Headbands made by sewing drilled and polished nassa shells onto a band of barkcloth, banana leaf, or other support were found in many highland cultures. In pre-contact times, nassa shells were traded from the north coast along the Jimi River into the Mount Hagen region. For many highlanders, the source of shells was unknown. The Huli and Wola of the southern highlands believed nassa shells were harvested from an enormous tree. The Telefolmin of the western highlands thought they emanated from the corpse of a man.
Before the 1940s nassa shells were rare. Valuable shell headbands – often worn by men in battle – were gifted as part of wealth exchange ceremonies together with ropes of cowrie shells. When the Australian administration began bringing large quantities of nassa shells directly into the highlands, large mats of shells began to circulate and were included as part of bride price payments. Pearlshells and cash eventually superseded nassa shells as important bride wealth items.
[Exhibition text for 'Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands', AGNSW, 2014]
Place where the work was made
mid 20th century
nassa shells (Nassarius), banana leaf, plant fibre string
decoration 55.5 cm length; overall 78.0 cm length; 23.5 cm width
Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977
Not on display
© Benabena people, under the endorsement of the Pacific Islands Museums Association's (PIMA) Code of Ethics
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Loan exhibition of Native art from the private collection previously not displayed of Mr S G Moriarty, Gallery Stephen Kellner, Australia, 15 Sep 1966–06 Oct 1966
Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 May 2014–10 Aug 2014
Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea, 29 May 2015–12 Jul 2015
Referenced in 1 publication
Natalie Wilson (Editor), Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, Sydney, 2014, 106 (colour illus.), 161. cat.no. 51