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Pacific art

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Pakol (bailer shell pectoral ornament)

early 20th century


Enga people

Papua New Guinea


For centuries, marine shells from the coastal regions have made their way into the mountainous highlands of Papua New Guinea. Through long-established trade routes, the exchange and symbolic use of shell valuables as body ornaments and wealth forms were widespread. Either whole shells or cut shells were worn on the human body, and shell valuables were used as a monetary form, prior to the introduction of paper money by the Australian colonial power. When the Leahy brothers first began exploring the highlands, the most significant items they carried into the region were shells, forever altering generations of reciprocal exchange practices. It is estimated that between 1933 and 1942 some 5 million shells of various kinds were airlifted into the highlands from the coast and Torres Strait Islands [1].

The most admired and sought after shell valuable, especially among the Melpa and Enga peoples of the western highlands region, was the pearlshell, both before 'first contact' and until it became devalued in the 1970s. However, in the past, bailer shells (Melo amphora) were considered important wealth items due to their scarcity, as they were only known in the upper and middle Wahgi Valley. Early bailer shells were often broken and repaired with stiches and gum, and very large shells worn as pectoral ornaments were only introduced after 1933 [2]. Shells were often borrowed and lent when needed for ceremonial occasions and given sacred meaning through their association with ancestral cults [3].

This magnificent 'pakol', or bailer shell ornament, has been pecked with a delicate row of small dots, delineating an anthropomorphic form resembling those seen on shields from the southern highlands [4].

[1] See Natalie Wilson, 'Plumes and pearlshells: the shows of the New Guinea highlands' in Plumes and pearlshells: art of the New Guinea highlands, AGNSW, Sydney, 2014, pp 12-13
[2] Ian Hughes, 'Recent neolithic trade in New Guinea', PhD, ANU, 1971, pp 323-326
[3] Polly Wiessner, 'The vines of complexity: egalitarian structures and the institutionalization of inequality among the Enga', Current anthropology, vol 43 no 2, April 2002, p 249
[4] See Paul Sillitoe, 'The art of war: Wola shield designs', Man, vol 15 no 3, Sep 1980; and D'Arcy Ryan, 'Some decorated fighting-shields from the Mendi Valley, Southern Highlands District of Papua', Mankind, vol 5, no 6, October 1958


Place where the work was made

Kandep Enga Province Papua New Guinea

Cultural origin

Enga people


early 20th century

Media category


Materials used

bailer shell, incised anthropomorphic figure, plant fibre cord


27.0 x 22.0 cm shell; 43.0 cm length (cord)


Gift of Chris Boylan 2017. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Enga people

Works in the collection