Article | Updated 7 years ago

Some of the first people to appreciate the power and beauty of pearlshell were the coastal Aboriginal groups of the northwest Kimberley coast. Collecting the shell on the king tides, these people have shaped and engraved pearlshell to celebrate country and traditions. People continue to value both guwan (undecorated shell) and riji (engraved shell) in dance and ceremony, and as an important item of exchange.

Image of a Bardi Dancer

Bardi dancer Moochoo Frank Davey Jnr, at his home at Gambanan (Dampier Peninsula), for the announcement of the National Heritage Listing of the West Kimberley, 31 August 2011.
Courtesy Jordan Shields 

A Long Way from the Sea

Its lustre hidden by carbonate crust, a tiny piece of shell found 75 centimetres below the surface in a West Kimberley rockshelter is the oldest Australian evidence that pearlshell has traditionally been greatly valued by Aboriginal people. By the time it was dropped by its last owner in Widgingarri, 22,000 years ago, this piece had already travelled 200 kilometres from the ancient shoreline.

Even earlier, Aboriginal people carried other types of shell over great distances. Examples of shell movement include 32,000-year-old baler shell from Widgingarri, 32,000-year-old cone shell beads from Mandu Mandu Creek, 30,000-year-old tusk shell beads from Riwi, and 24,000-year-old baler shell from Shark Bay. The Riwi beads, found 500 kilometres from the ancient coast, are an exciting glimpse of an early long-distance network.

Today, cultural materials such as guwan and riji are prized items in Aboriginal exchange networks across much of Australia. Far from the shore but still connected with water, pearlshell is a vital element in Central Desert rainmaking ceremonies.

Image of a woman and children

Sarah Ah Choo preparing barrgayi (tusk shell beads) for boys who are approaching initiation, 1974. More robust than pearlshell, such beads were also valuable items of trade for the women who made them.
Courtesy Kim Akerman 

Image of a group of people

Ceremonial grounds near Broome were meeting places where neighbouring tribal groups gathered for ceremony and to organise marriages, resolve disputes and exchange cultural materials.
Courtesy WA Museum DA 084 

Image of a group of people

Bardi-Jawi men on Jayirri (‘Tyri’/Jackson Island) in King Sound, 1917.
William Jackson, North West Scientific Expedition, courtesy WA Museum DA9312-162 

They send ’em away … shield, spear, belt, boomerang, red ochre, paint, shell, everything … When they get together, they make ’em part of the family.

John Dudu Nanggariny, Karajarri elder, 1997

Image of a man on a raft

Roy Wiggan Bagayi with his dog on galwa (Bardi raft) near Iwany (Sunday Island), 1998.
Patricia Vinnicombe collection, courtesy WA Museum DA-PV-2009-08-255 

Yinyali, ANYJA or wunan

People might come from the east to our country. Old people will give them something … give them gifts with little carvings to take back to their home where they never see anything like that.

Lulga Francis Djiagween, Yawuru elder, 2015

Yawuru and Karajarri, Bardi-Jawi and Worrora people have traditionally engaged in complex exchange networks, known as yinyali, anyja or wunan in their respective languages. The prized items at the centre of these networks, such as pearlshell, are key items in Indigenous rituals, mythology and social relationships.

Both ritual objects and valued personal gifts, such as weapons, food or clothing, moved vast distances across Australia, through chains of partners on either small-scale interpersonal or larger-scale inter-group levels. Different categories of objects moved in different directions. The pathways often overlay Dreaming tracks or contours of landscape and, by the 1970s, incorporated modern roads, pastoral stations and flight paths.

Pearlshell may only have become a valued exchange item in the last 200 years, among the objects that moved east. It is not known precisely when these networks began, but the movement of specific types of stone tools, hints of shared words in different languages separated by vast distances, and the Dreaming stories told by people, all suggest that they were in place well before the arrival of Europeans.

Image of trade items

Trade items including pearlshell, spears and shields set out for exchange.
Courtesy Kim Akerman

We are true Salt Water people.  We live off the sea. When I make riji (engraved pearlshell) I think of everything out in the ocean — the loo (currents), the spout, the waves, the land and under the water. All got their own spirit.

Aubrey Tigan Galiwa, Mayala elder

From Guwan to Riji: Objects of Power and Beauty

When the boys dance, the binji binji tinkle like keys and the sound makes the women cry because they are so proud of their sons. They can get married now.

Roy Wiggan Bagayi, Bardi elder, 2010

While neighbouring people along the Kimberley and Pilbara coasts left engravings and paintings on rock outcrops and rockshelter walls, pearlshell became the ‘canvas’ for the coastal peoples of the region stretching from Eighty Mile Beach to Dampierland.

Today, Salt Water people continue to collect, clean and shape guwan (undecorated pearl shell). They incise ramu (lines forming special designs) onto the guwan, sometimes also rubbing ochre into the designs. Guwan, when carved, becomes riji. Smaller carved blades of shell, binji binji, are worn as headpieces, or as shell clusters on hairbelts. All these valued shells are worn by men.

The power of riji, represented by the brilliance and shimmer of its mother of pearl (also known as nacre), is considered a manifestation of water, and therefore of life. Their designs carry gender-restricted esoteric meanings, and in context become powerful objects.

Used by maban (powerful spiritual men), riji have the power to bring the rain, determine who is guilty of a crime, attract women, or help heal the sick. They are given to boys in ceremonies to mark their transition to adulthood, and families are very proud when the young men first appear wearing their shell. 

Image of a group of warriors

‘Warriors of Roebuck Bay’. Naturalist William Saville-Kent photographed a group of Yawuru men dressed for ceremony on Kennedy Hill, Broome, during his review of the Western Australian pearlshell beds c.1884.
William Saville-Kent, The Naturalist in Australia (1897)


Two men with pearlshell apparel

Peter Angus Roob (right) wearing his baali-guwan (hairbelt and pearlshell), binji binji (pearlshell blade), and barrgayi (tusk shell beads). He is standing with his brother-in-law, Anij, who ‘gave him his red paint’ and took him through the law’. Gooljiman (Cape Leveque) c. 1939.
Wood Collection, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MHP 0004/33

Man working with pearlshell and red ochre

Bardi elder Sandy Paddy Malilboor filling in pearlshell designs with red ochre, Lombadina, 1988. 
Moya Smith, courtesy WA Museum DA-MS1988-08-05

Celebrating Country and Culture

When I carve pearlshell with the old designs I feel good and strong, connected to my father, my grandfather, my country. They come to me in dreams and tell me what to do, and what to carve. That’s my inspiration.

Aubrey Tigan Galiwa, Mayala elder, 2011

The designs carved on pearlshell link their carvers with their ancestors, their culture, their country and their stories.

The act of carving, and of wearing or holding riji, especially for the first time as an adult, is a powerful boost to an individual’s liyan. Liyan encapsulates physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, and expresses a sense of connectedness to the world.

Pearlshell, binji binji (small pearlshell blades), barrgayi (tusk shell necklaces) – every time men and women are involved in producing these, or men wear them, it is an act that celebrates tradition and emphasises belonging to Salt Water.

Person holding riji shell

Aubrey Tigan Galiwa preparing a riji shell for his last exhibition, 2014
Sally May, courtesy WA Maritime Museum MADSC6633/282 

Continuing Traditions 

When I carve shell it comes from our country. 

I tell personal and spiritual stories.

It’s about keeping our culture alive, and, when I dance, I am proud of who I am.

Russell ‘Wossy’ Davey Jooda, Bardi dancer and pearlshell carver, 2015

Carved riji proved popular as collector’s items with pearlers, missionaries and many other outsiders with whom Aboriginal people came in contact

While riji continued to have a role in the early twentieth century in ceremonies relating to the passage of boys and young men to adulthood, master carvers experimented with less traditional designs.

Pearlshell carving has become a contemporary artistic tradition. Highlighted with natural ochres, the carved pearlshells of the Kimberley coastal artists, present realistic drawings that tell the story of country and of historical experiences, and are now found in ethnographic and art collections around the world.

The tradition continues with younger artists, such as Wossy Davey and Garry Sibosado, who carve the old designs but also create their own cultural interpretations in their shell. 

Man holding pearlshell

Rusell ‘Wossy’ Davey Jooda with carved shell, 2015.
Courtesy Michael Torress Jalaru