Belt Ornament or Pendant, early 20th century
Probably western Kimberley Region, Western Australia
Pearl shell, ocher, hair; H. (pendant) 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1540)
Teardrop-shaped ornaments made from the iridescent shell of the pearl oyster or, more rarely, other materials were worn and exchanged across much of northern, central, and western Australia. The ornaments were primarily produced and engraved in the Kimberley Region on the northern coast from shells obtained in the Torres Strait, which separates Australia and New Guinea. Prized as ornaments and ceremonial objects, they were exchanged along a vast system of inland trade routes that extended as far as Australia's southern coast more than a thousand miles away.
Known by a variety of local names, including riji, jakuli, and longkalongka, the ornaments were worn predominantly by men as a cache sexe, suspended from a belt of human hair worn around the waist or, in some instances, as pendants. In some areas they were also worn by women. The ornaments were typically engraved, as here, with rectilinear geometric designs, accented with red ocher. Pearl shell was associated with water, which was seen as the essence of life, especially in Australia's arid interior, and the silvery luster of the shell was said to embody the shimmering qualities of water, rain, and lightning.