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Since colonisation, Tasmanian shell necklaces have been researched and collected by many countries. They were among a number of cultural objects collected by French explorers in the 1700s as part of a cultural exchange.

Tasmanian necklaces are held in a number of collections throughout Australia and Europe. Most notably, the Oxford and British Museums both have necklaces made from Phasianotrochus irisodontes – the elenchus or maireener shells.

There are four different species of the maireener shells native to Tasmanian waters. The maireener, commonly known as the rainbow kelp shell, was originally the only shell used to thread in the necklace making tradition.

Rainbow kelp shell

There are four different species of the maireener shells native to Tasmanian waters. The maireener, Phasianotrochus irisodonte, commonly known as the rainbow kelp shell, was originally the only shell used to thread in the necklace making tradition.

Image: Vanessa Skillton
© Vanessa Skillton

Shell necklace-making is the oldest continuing cultural practice in Tasmania – a significant tradition for Aboriginal women that is still handed down through each generation.

In 1966, archaeologist Rhys Jones reported that several pierced shells, exposed from a cremation site on the north-west coast of Tasmania, were approximately 2600 years old.

Aboriginal women living on the Furneaux Islands made shell necklaces to support their families which they exchanged with a general store on Flinders Island for food and clothes. This trade resulted in the Bowman Collection which is now held by the Furneaux Museum on Flinders Island. In the 1900s, women living on Cape Barren Island sold necklaces to a local church minister, which became an important collection for the Stanley Museum.

Aboriginal women have maintained a strong cultural knowledge of shell-collecting areas. They hold first-hand knowledge about the sea and the tide levels which give access to their shell-gathering beaches. The first part to planning a seasonal shell-gathering trip is always to review the tide levels which provide accurate data to allow the gathering of shells in less than a metre of water.

Gathering shells is carried out during daylight hours, providing good, clear vision and enabling safer access when wading through the sea. Collecting requires one to bend over and pick each shell individually from the seaweed. Once the tide starts coming back into shore, it becomes too deep and the shells are out of reach and out of sight.

The shells’ breeding cycle begins in October when the old shells take on a disguise of coral to cover the outer shell. The shells move out into 10 metres of water to breed and drop the mollusc spat. The shells return to shallow water and are fully grown by end of April.

Recently, shell collectors have experienced decreased shells available for harvest, and while there is an increase in collectors, suitable sea beds for harvesting have diminished.

In the past 20 years, the global warming has seen a vast change in kelp and seaweed growth around Flinders Island, Cape Barren and Big Dog islands, contributing to the erosion of seabeds. Big storms whip up sand and shells, and toss them onto the foreshore, sometimes burying shells or sweeping the beach clean.

Necklace makers have noticed that kelp is very scarce where any recreational activities affect previously undisturbed areas. In one particular bay there is an abalone fish farm where the fish spat are artificially fed. The spat that escape the fish farm attract parrot fish, which also consume maireener shells.

The effect of global warming on water temperature will also affect spawning and survival of the maireener shells.

My knowledge of shell necklace-making came directly through my family. It was great grandmother, Granny Laura, who taught mother how to collect, clean and make the shell necklaces.

My first memory as a young girl is of walking on the beach with my mother and Elders during the mutton bird-season. I remember going to the beach with Mum and her friends, and my Aunty Dolly teaching me craft by a very dull kerosene light.

Mum and I first made necklaces together in the late 80s and at this time I learned how she cleaned the maireeners, putting them outside to attract insects. A few years later, I gained new hints from my mother-in-law Dulcie on threading, using different threads for certain shells.

Today, the necklaces of my mother, Valerie MacSween, and mother-in-law, Dulcie Greeno, are held in museums and art gallery collections along with my own. I have shell necklaces in most major museums and art galleries around Australia.

Maintaining Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s cultural practice promotes custodianship. By teaching the skills associated with necklace making, future generations continue significant traditions and knowledge of their environmental living resources.

This article appeared in Explore magazine, Winter 2021. View the whole issue here.