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Pacific art

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mid 20th century
collected 1966


Unknown Artist


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 Pearlshells and cash eventually superseded nassa shells as important bride wealth items.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]


Other Title


Cultural origin

Benabena people


mid 20th century
collected 1966

Materials used

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

Accession number


Shown in 3 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


Natalie Wilson, Painter in paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea, 'Return to Wangi', pg. 60-99, Sydney, 2015, 72 (colour illus.), 124. 73

Natalie Wilson (Editor), Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, Sydney, 2014, 106 (colour illus.), 161. 51