Treasures from the Sea

Have you ever picked up seashells and brought them home from your travels? Shells from the Indian Ocean have been collected for thousands of years. Often travelling long distances, they have often been highly valued by their owners, carrying with them stories of their origins and always of the sea they came from. Some were used as money, others showed the wealth or connections of their owners, others holding the memories of their custodians. Shells were significant objects for those in the Netherlands four hundred years ago and for people in Australia, living tens of thousands of years ago.

From Indian Ocean to Ancient Italy

Carved fluted clam shell, Vulci, Italy, 700 - 600 BC

Carved fluted clam shell, Vulci, Italy, 700 - 600 BCE
Image copyright The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved Fluted Clam Shell
Vulci, Italy, 700-600 BCE
The British Museum, 1852,0112.3

A woman's face stares out from this clam shell, the ripples of the shell's back swirling like the lady's windblown cloak. The shell once held perfume or was used to mix make-up. About 2,700 years old, the shell was found in Italy. It was not made in Italy, the face and other decoration was carved in what is today Syria, Lebanon, Israel or Palestine. The decorated shells were traded west to Italy and east to Iraq. But the clam originally came from somewhere else, taken from the warm clear waters of the Red Sea or other parts of the Indian Ocean.

Around the bottom edge of the shell you can see faint patterns, once coloured in black. There is a water lily in the middle and on either side, an Egyptian looking sphinx, a lion with a human head and bird’s wings.

Ancient Adornment

Shell beads

Shell beads
Image courtesy WA Museum

Shell beads
Mandu Mandu Creek rockshelter, near Exmouth, 32,000BP
Western Australian Museum W963, W966, W971, W973-4, W977, W982

These shells are some of the oldest pieces of jewellery to be found anywhere in the world. They were found near Exmouth in Western Australia.

Imagine people wearing these shells as beads some 32,000 years ago, around their necks, on their arms, or decorating their hair. These shells were collected from the sea and holes were drilled in them. Treasured objects, they were lost or deliberately buried several kilometres inland from where the sea was at that time.

Collecting, wearing and treasuring shells is something we have been doing for tens of thousands of years.

Salt Water People

Engraved 'Gaara' pearlshell by Aubrey Tigan Galiwa

Engraved 'Gaara' pearlshell by Aubrey Tigan Galiwa
Image courtesy WA Museum

Gaara – Pearlshell (Pinctada maxima) incised and decorated with red ochre
Aubrey Tigan Galiwa (dec.), One Arm Point, West Kimberley, Purchased 2011
Western Australian Museum, A26819

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, Mayala elder (dec)

The late Aubrey Tigan Galiwa, master pearlshell carver and senior Mayala man from the West Kimberley, collected pearlshell and carved intricate designs that reflect the traditions and stories of his country. Gaara literally means ‘salt water’ and it is represented in the zig-zag pattern. Can you see how it resembles the ripples left on the beach as the tide retreats?

For the coastal groups of the West Kimberley, the act of collecting, carving and wearing pearlshell links individuals with their ancestors, their culture, their country and their stories.