The Art of Shell Beads
In the recent publication, Textiles of Indonesia, Valerie Hector informs us that shells have been used in Southeast Asia as both ornament and currency for Millenia. Oliva shell beads were found in an archaeology site of Timor dating to circa 35,000 years ago and Nassarius shell beads were found in the same area dating to 4500 BCE.
Despite the emergence of the glass trade bead industry some two thousand years ago, hand fashioned shell disks continued to serve as a primary way of storing value and signaling prestige up through the 20th century for many ethnic groups of Southeast Asia and Oceania. This was owing to the extraordinary labor intensiveness in shell bead creation, and the principle that the further from the sea, the greater the value for all artifacts made from shell.
This small exhibition features shell artwork from some of the most legendary headhunting peoples of Asia, including the greatest shell-decorated garment in the world from the Atayal of Taiwan; a blouse decorated with mother of pearl shell beads from the B'laan of Mindanao, Philippines; an early warrior's cape from the Naga with appliqued cowrie shells, making a human figure amid circles; and an extraordinary Naga necklace fashioned from giant clam, both from the northeastern highlands of India.
It is a pleasure to share this deeply meaningful group with you!
For further reading:
Bednarik, Robert G. “Beads and the Origins of Symbolism”
Draguet, Michel (2018) NAGA, Awe Inspiring Beauty, fig 236, p 306
Francis, P. (1989d). The Manufacture of Beads from Shell. In C. F. Hayes III (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1986 Shell Bead Conference: Selected Papers (pp. 25-36). Rochester Museum and Science Center.
Hector, Valerie. (2022) "Indonesian Beadwork" in Textiles of Indonesia, Prestel
Langley, Michelle and O’Connor, Sue (2015) “6500-Year-old Nassarius shell appliques in Timor-Leste: Technological and use wear analyses” Journal of Archeological Science
Atayal People, Taiwan
Ramie, raveled trade wool, shell disk beads
19th/very early 20th Century
19 x 38 in / 48 x 96.5 cm
Robes of this type are the most important of all Taiwan Aboriginal costumes and were exclusively worn by successful headhunters of the Atayal people.
Exceptionally rare, they were profoundly labor intensive to create. The red color represents the Blood of Life, the linear geometry of the beading, the Rainbow Path of the Ancestors. The hand pierced shell beads represent thousands of hours of stored value.
B'laan people, Mindanao, Philippines
Cotton, handmade shell disks
14 x 45 in / 36 x 114 cm
This remarkable blouse was created using hand-carved shell disks that are both aesthetically pleasing and a storage of value. Thousands of hours of hard labor were required to make so many organic sequins. That the blouse is a tailored garment made from cotton may be said to represent a later Indian influence, probably in the 4th century, about the time Indians introduced cotton.
Naga People, India
Cotton, dog hair, shells
19th/very early 20th Century
59 x 39 in / 150 x 99 cm
On a finely handspun cotton cloth, cowry shells are stitched down depicting cosmic diagrams of circles and a human figure, awarded only to a successful headhunter. Supplementary weft squares of reddish dog hair decorate the background. Cathryn Cootner was the curator of textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from 1981, a position she held for 16 years.
Angami, Naga People, India
30.5 in / 77 cm
19th Century or earlier
This prestigious heirloom necklace is composed of large beads likely cut from a giant clam. The Angami live high in the mountains and far from the sea. That is why jewelry made from shell is so highly esteemed. A related piece is published in NAGA, awe inspiring beauty, by Michel Draguet, fig 236, p 306.