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Feature Article - Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces
For thousands of years, Aboriginal women have walked Tasmania's beaches gathering shells to make necklaces. Shell necklace making is one of the few Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural practices that is still undertaken in 2002.
Necklace making is an intense labour. Before European settlement the women would smoke the chunky maireener shells over a fire then rub off the coating to reveal the pearly nacreous surface. After piercing them with the eyetooth of an animal such as a kangaroo or a wallaby, the shells were strung on fine sinews from a kangaroo’s tail or on string made from natural fibres. As well as the pearly shells there were strands of tiny intricate rice shells so named for their form and size, being no bigger than a grain of rice. There were also big black crow shells, cat’s teeth and stripy button shells.
This traditional craft is dependent on the availability of shells, and many of the women keep their gathering places a closely guarded secret. The most valued shell, the maireener, is collected during the spring tide when it recedes from the shore several hundred metres for up to three hours. The women then have time to gather shells fresh which is essential in retaining the intense colour and strength of the shell.
Tamanian shell necklaces were first documented by the early explorers who visited Tasmania in the 18th century.
The ABS wishes to thank Arts Tasmania, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Lola Greeno and Pollyanna Sutton for their input.
'Strings Across Time' exhibition
Island Tales by Lola Greeno
Passing on Tasmanian Aboriginal traditions
Photographs of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces
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