Bead Work from Oceania

Bead Work from Oceania



When my husband Joost and I had reached the cut-off point for including items in my book Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment (Ethnic Art Press and Macmillan, 2009: see link, our collecting habits did not change, and they still have not.

Our interest in ethnic jewellery did not diminish, and we remained committed to collecting, among many other objects, adornment from our part of the world: particularly Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia. When we were offered an Admiralty Islands set of skirt and arm- and legbands we did not hesitate. The Admiralty Islands, north of New Guinea, are part of the Bismarck Archipelago, and now belong to the nation of Papua New Guinea. The name Bismarck points to their once being part of the German colonial empire. From the time of World War I the region formerly under German control was administered by Australia, and our set was collected by a person who managed a plantation on the Admiralty Islands in the 1920s. The Germans started coconut plantations in several places in the Pacific, and it appears that Admiralty Islanders appreciated being paid in small glass beads.

Early examples of such a “skirt” as shown here were made from ground-down small white shell rings, and the skirts thus were very heavy. With primitive tools such rings were laboriously cut from larger shells. The bottom of the skirt had a fringe with fibre and seed tassels, and the woven fibre top had colourful bird feathers as decoration. An example of the old type of skirts made of shell beads, from the South Australian Museum, is illustrated in my book (p. 138). It already has some coloured trade beads woven in patterns among the shell rings. After an intermediate phase in which such skirts were made of a combination of ground-down shells and an increasing number of trade beads, the islanders moved entirely to the use of the “ready-made” and more colourful glass beads. Trade beads are a particular feature of adornment used on these islands, as are geometric patterns of triangles and squares in endless varieties and colours. Red, blue, black and white coloured beads are often seen, as for example on beadwork armbands arranged over a rigid fibre frame.

The first photograph shows our skirt, and arm- and legbands follow. Interestingly, a belt added to the photograph of the second set of bands was bought separately on eBay, but had been collected at the same time, about 1920, and has both the same patterns and the same kind and colours of beads, so is a perfect match. Skirts from the Admiralty Islands (also often referred to as “aprons”) were traditionally worn by chiefs and important men at dances, while women wore simple fibre skirts. However, over time, these elaborate skirts became the attire for women to dance in, and especially for brides: they wore one skirt in front of the body, and one behind, both held up by a belt. This was the outfit they wore when travelling to their new husband’s clan. Thus the skirt was an object that served a particular ceremonial purpose and was at the same time a wealth object. It would seem that the skirts were not made for long after the 1920s, for we have seen very few examples.

To purchase Truus’ book please visit the website below:

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment (Ethnic Art Press and Macmillan, 2009: see link

For further discussion on this subject Click Here