Marine shell ornaments in northwestern Australian archaeological sites: Different meanings over time and space

Jane Balme, Susan O'Connor, Michelle Langley

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    While some of the oldest Australian examples of marine shell ornamentation are in archaeological sites that were close to the Pleistocene coastline, in the southern Kimberley of northern Australia, shell beads and other marine objects have been found in both Pleistocene and Holocene contexts more than 300 km from the coast. One of the characteristics of marine shell ornaments is their bright, white, or lustrous appearance that seems to have been intrinsic to their selection as body adornments. Historic photographs and ethnographic evidence reveal that, in the recent past, Indigenous men, women, and children in coastal locations wore such objects in both secular and non-secular contexts. However, further away from their coastal source, the meaning and uses of these artefacts changed, and in far inland Australia, they were imbued with very powerful properties only being used in gender and age restricted ceremonial contexts. Hence, archaeological distributions of marine objects, including shell beads, may be interpreted as reflecting differences in social meaning across time and space.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Archaeology of Portable Art: Southeast Asian, Pacific, and Australian Perspectives
    Editors M Langley, M Litster, D Wright & S May
    Place of PublicationOxford and New York
    ISBN (Print)9781315299112
    Publication statusPublished - 2018

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