Shell necklace stringing is the oldest continuing and most significant cultural tradition of Tasmanian Aboriginal women. The practice of collecting, processing, grading and stringing shells has been handed down through generations of Aboriginal women, particularly the women of the Furneaux Islands.
The survival of shell stringing is testament to the resilience and determination of Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples throughout the violence and disruption of European invasion and colonisation of lutruwita (Tasmania) that began in 1803.
Shell necklaces were originally made as an adornment, given as gifts or as a token of honour, and traded with other sea and land peoples for tools and ochre. Evidence exists dating the practice back at least 2600 years.
Since early colonisation, these shell necklaces have been sold and exchanged for goods, researched, and collected by museums and art galleries both in Australia and internationally.
The maireener shell was originally the only shell used to thread in the necklace-making tradition.
Contemporary Palawa shell stringers, like James, still learn from their Elders and teach their children. Collecting requires an intimate knowledge of the sea and the tides, commitment and an immense amount of time.
Green maireener shells are the most difficult shells to locate and collect. Consequently, they are favoured over the blue maireener shell, which are found more commonly. A single species necklace of green maireener shells of traditional length (approximately 182cm) can take as long as three years to create due to the amount of time it takes to collect, process and grade the shells.
Shell stringing has evolved with the tools and materials that colonisation introduced. Necklaces are now longer and use a variety of types and smaller shells, which allow for increasingly intricate designs.
Climate change has also forced the practice to evolve. Warmer waters have changed kelp and seaweed growth and seabed conditions. More extreme weather is also affecting the breeding and survival of shells.
In 2009 they were listed as a Tasmanian Heritage Icon by the National Trust of Australia.
The shells used in Palawa shell necklaces are protected under the Tasmanian Living Marine Resources Act 1995.
They can only be collected by Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Shell stringing evolved with the introduction of new materials, tools and equipment following European colonisation of Lutruwita (Tasmania).
Traditionally, women pierced a hole in each shell with a tool made from a jaw bone and sharpened tooth of a kangaroo or wallaby. Shells were then threaded onto kangaroo tail sinews or thread made from natural fibres, before being smoked over fire and rubbed in grass to reveal their pearly surface. Shells were polished with penguin or mutton bird oil.
Today, contemporary shell stringers use acids such as vinegar to clean the shells, steel punches to create holes in them and needle and cotton or synthetic thread to string them. These changes have enabled longer necklaces and more intricate and varied designs due to the types of shells that can be pierced.
Developments in shell stringing indicate the changing circumstances and lifestyle of Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania following colonisation, but also highlights their resilience and strong will to continue their culture at a time when they faced endless adversities.
Choose a new tool or material from a place other than in the art room. This might be a kitchen appliance, a gardening tool or cleaning substance.
Using the new tool or material, experiment with an art form and medium you are familiar with.
Document your process and then try to replicate it. Keep trying new ideas and ways of manipulating your form or medium until you can produce the same outcome at least twice.
- How does the new tool or material hinder you?
- How do they enhance your practice and creative outcome?
- Do you feel in control?
- Or are your foreign materials and tools controlling you?