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Shell Currency in the Pacific

Ashleigh McLarin, Exhibitions Curator


On many islands in the pacific, shell currency is a widespread practice. Melanesian and Polynesian peoples harnessed their abundant natural, oceanic resources and created their own wealth systems. Shell currencies were exchanged for many reasons; compensation for life lost, marriage doweries, righting wrongs and for sealing agreements. Shell money cannot be equated simply with money. They have ceremonial and symbolic distinctions. At the Whangārei Museum we are fortunate to care for such objects. I will refer to two examples.


Our first example is a shell arm-ring (2006/21/3). It is smooth, solid, cream and its surface is sheen. Its inner diameter is 8cm which means it would sit tight on the upper arm. It is of considerable weight and weighs 300 grams. The size and colour of this bracelet indicates that it is made from Tridacna (Giant Clam Shell), which can reach 1.2 meters in width. This arm-ring was made by breaking through the giant clam shell with a sharp stone, then smoothing the surface with pumice dust or sand. It is a time consuming and labour-intensive process. Creating one arm-ring could take up to 6 months of intermittent work. The quality of the craftsmanship also influences the value of the finished piece. This arm-ring is of general size, but thicker arm-rings indicate the wearers prominent social standing.    

This arm-ring was donated to the museum by Ashton Kelly. He was gifted the arm-ring from Reverend Boyce, a Methodist missionary, during his time on Vella Lavella during the second world war. He was a member of the 14th Brigade and performed the role of Pacific Welfare Officer. He returned to Whangārei in 1945, where he re-joined the family business ̶ his father was the owner of Kelly’s Menswear in Cameron Street, Whangārei.


Kelly noted that the arm-ring was used as a bridal dowry. Arm-rings were exchanged as dowries; however, these bands are not limited to marriage rituals. Men and women wore these bands more generally to symbolise their wealth and status. Arm-rings can be stacked, with up to 15 on each arm. A richly adorned individual comes from a wealthy family.   Vella Lavella is regarded as the lead manufacturer of Tridacna arm-rings.


Another example we have in the museum is a strand of small shell disks held on a fibrous thread (T646). The shell disks are polished Conus shells. They have a pink grain that runs through them and on some of the disks you can see that. The five shells that hang on the end of the fibre strands are either olividae or conidae.


This example is also appears to be of Solomon Island origin; however, we do not have provenance for this item, like the arm-ring. The origin of this shell strand can be deduced from a similar example held in the Auckland Museum which does note country of origin, and through my research which provided additional examples locating this style of shell currency to the Solomon Islands.

The creation and distribution of shell currency is still central to the Pacific, although now, with international tourism, shell currency is often sold to eager tourists. Global warming has also changed the availability of this resource which has meant that shell importation has increased as the oceans have been stripped of their past abundance.

My research has come from book learning but if you have cultural knowledge about these objects and can offer any further confirmation ̶ please do get in touch.


These objects are not currently on display at the museum.