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Cowrie shell necklace

collected 18 August 1970


Unknown Artist

  • Details

    Other Title
    Man's necklace
    Place where the work was made
    Sisimin Ok Om River Sandaun Province Papua New Guinea
    Cultural origin
    Yoliapi (Hewa) people
    collected 18 August 1970
    Media categories
    Jewellery , Botanical material , Animal material
    Materials used
    95 cowrie shells: side-mounted on vine-strand-reinforced string, with three shells hanging from the ends
    68.0 cm length (approx.) :

    0 - Whole, 68 cm (26 3/4"), length of necklace overall(approx.)

    0 - Whole, 52.5 cm, length of mounted shells (approx.)

    Gift of Stan Moriarty 1977
    Not on display
    Accession number

    Reproduction requests

  • About

    This necklace is made from cowrie shells which are mounted sideways on a vine-strand-reinforced string loop. These necklaces were worn as everyday decoration, however, when many shells were used and packed closely together on a strand, they were considered of great value. Such necklaces were then regarded as wealth items and kept safe, to be used for exchange on specific social occasions. Large and particualrly valuable examples were reserved to be worn at large events only. The front-mounted necklace on the other hand, threaded with far fewer shells, was worn more for personal adornment than as an exchange item.

    The value of such necklaces has declined dramatically across all regions of the Highlands. In the past they were traded with pearl shells, pigs and other comparable valuables, the number of shells in a necklace determining its value. Cowrie shells were passed from hand to hand through exchange transactions and necklaces would be remade when the string rotted or the fine strand broke, due to the weight of the shells.

    A necklace is begun by splitting and paring down a rattan vine strand for the core of the necklace. The strand is arranged with a coil of string, made up of four or more loops, and at one end the string coils are looped to form an eye. The shells are threaded by their natural clefts onto one of the loops comprising the necklace core. Each shell is secured to the coiled string and vine strand by winding a line around them between each cowrie and a length of string is then wound around the bottom of the shells to hold them firmly and reduce movement. The necklace is then finished by winding the string around the rest of the core to make an end which can be threaded and tied through the eye.

    Some necklaces may be decorated by hanging objects from the back, off the eye, and could include hollow pangi seed cases and pigs' tails, small pig and marsupial bones, hard pencil cedar seeds, the claws of tree kangaroos or long-beaked echidnas, and the talons of certain large birds - especially cassowaries, common scrub hens, brown-collared brush turkeys, New Guinea eagles, wattled brush turkeys, and hawks - by boring a hole through the base of single claws by which to suspend them.

    A sideways mounted cowrie necklace of average size takes over 3 hours to assemble and only men make these necklaces. In the past, all men were able to make these necklaces, however, today, only the older men have retained the knowledge and experience. As the necklaces lasted for many years, men did not make them up often, receiving most of the necklaces that passed through their hands ready-made and in good condition.

    [The above information refers specifically to the Wola people of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea and their material culture, see Paul Sillitoe, 'Made in Niugini: technology in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea', British Museum Publications, London, 1988. However, cowrie shell necklaces such as these are manufactured and exchanged across the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and their production methods are virtually identical]