Papua New Guinea: Make a Shell Necklace

To celebrate May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this segment explores a few more of the museum’s objects from Papua New Guinea. You can see our previous post about how to make a drum from Papua New Guinea here.

Papua New Guinea is one the world’s least explored countries because of its diverse and rugged geography. There are four regions in Papua New Guinea with the Highlands being formed by the mountains that run the length of the island. This terrain made it difficult to develop transportation infrastructure, so most of the Highlands are only accessible by walking or small airplane. For centuries, this has limited trade and contact with indigenous peoples.

Shells

For a long time, shells have been a valuable item in all parts of Papua New Guinea but especially in the Highland region. Through extensive trading, different types of shells came into the Highlands. Because Highland peoples had no concept of the sea and shells were so hard to acquire, they were considered exotic and valuable. They are a symbol of status, prosperity, and wealth.

Traditionally, shells were used as money to pay bride prices and dowries, as payments after war or feuds, and for admissions to men’s clubs and secret societies.  Today, shells are used more symbolically and for ceremonial purposes.

Highlands tribesmen with American rock climber John Long

American rock climber John Long poses with Highlands tribespeople wearing a bailer shell necklace (left) and a kina shell necklace (right).

Personal Adornment

Bailer shell necklace

This bailer shell necklace is from the Lam Museum collection.

Most shells are made into items for personal adornment like necklaces, headbands, pectoral covers, leg and armbands. Shells are hung or tied with handmade knotted fiber string. Items are decorated with any available materials, including seeds, trade beads, feathers, fur, grasses, ferns, croton leaves, yellow orchid vine, everlasting daisies, and links of bamboo. Sometimes shells are rubbed with ochre to enhance their beauty.

Bailer Shell Necklace

This type of large shell is called a bailer shell because in coastal Papua New Guinea villages it was used to bail water out of canoes. Bailer shell necklaces are worn by both men and women. Men wear them during special ceremonies and rituals. Women wear them during sing sing dance ceremonies.

kina shell necklace

This kina shell necklace is from the Lam Museum collection.

Kina Shell Necklace

This type of crescent-shaped shell is called a kina shell. They are cut from the yellow-lipped clam and then polished. Kina shells are prized for their golden yellow color. Men and women wear kina shells necklaces by themselves or layered with other necklaces. Papua New Guinea’s money is still called kina after these shells.

Let’s make a shell necklace!

In this segment you learned about two types of shell necklaces worn in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. For this activity YOU get to choose which style of shell necklace you want to make. Or if you want, make one of each!

You will need:
• 
Plastic milk container
Scissors
Hole punch
Sharpie or Washable Markers (brown, black, red, orange) We thought Crayola washable markers worked the best.
Twine or Yarn (brown, black, natural colors)
Beads
Wet wipe or baby wipe
Glue or glue gun

Instructions:Steps to make bailer shell necklace

Wash out your milk container and let it dry.

To make a bailer shell necklace:

  1. Use a marker to draw a large oval on the flat side of the container.
  2. Cut out the oval shape with scissors. Parents may need to help with this part.
  3. Use the hole punch to make 1 hole on each side of the top.
  4. Use black and brown markers to distress your shell. Rub marker along edges and some on the surface. While the marker is wet, rub with a wipe to remove some of the marker. Keep doing this until you get the look you like. This will make your shell look old and worn.
  5. Cut long pieces of yarn or twine.
  6. Thread the yarn or twine through the holes for the ties of your necklace.
  7. Our bailer shell necklace is decorated with pig hair. You can use raffia or yarn instead. Glue the raffia to the inside of the oval.

To make a kina shell necklace:

  1. From the same milk container, use a marker to draw a large crescent moon shape on the other flat side.steps to make kina shell necklace
  2. Cut out the moon shape. Parents may need to help with this part.
  3. Use the hole punch to make 1 hole in each point of the crescent shape.
  4. Use black and brown markers to distress your shell. You can also use some red and orange markers if you want. Rub marker along edges and some on the surface. While the marker is wet rub with a wipe to remove some of the marker. Keep doing this until you get the look you like. This will make your shell look old and worn.
  5. Cut long pieces of yarn or twine.
  6. Thread the yarn or twine through the holes for the ties of your necklace.
  7. Decorate the ties with beads.

Have fun wearing your shell necklaces!

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