Bead Making in Aboriginal Australia From the Deep Past to European Arrival: Materials, Methods, and Meanings

Jane Balme, Susan O'Connor

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    This paper reviews the raw materials used by Indigenous Australians to make beads. It includes beads recovered from archaeological sites, as well as beads collected before 1940 held in museum collections, and those that are described in pre-1940 literature and other archival material. All three sources of information indicate that people were highly selective in their choice of materials for bead production and that availability and abundance only partly determined selection. Grass and reeds, the most widespread material represented in the museum and historic sources, if used in pre-European times, have not been preserved in archaeological sites. Beads made of highly iridescent or luminous shells, that historic sources suggest were regarded as imbued with powerful properties, were selected over other, more abundant colorful or patterned shells. Teeth of large macropod species were more commonly used than any other mammals despite other species being more readily available. On the other hand, dingo teeth, which were just as large and more robust than macropod teeth, were very rarely used, and this seems surprising given dingoes’ ubiquitous presence in Aboriginal society. As dog teeth were commonly used as beads in personal adornments by Melanesian people in Papua New Guinea, and the teeth of now locally extinct dogsized carnivores are found as beads in archaeological contexts, we suggest that the lack of dog teeth beads may reflect the high status of dogs in Aboriginal societies. Although the Australian archaeological bead assemblage is small, comparison with the historically documented beads indicates that the choice of raw material has remained relatively constant for thousands of years. The historical sources also describe human teeth and other bone relics as being worn as pendants for protection for the wearer. However these are often unmodified, being suspended by resin or other non-destructive techniques. This has implications for isolated human skeletal parts found in archaeological contexts.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)177-194
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


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