Giant Clamshell Ring, Yua, Prince Alexander Mountains, PNG, 19th / early 20th Century

19th / early 20th Century
Clamshell, nassa shells, fibre
36 x 22.5 cm

Large Shell Rings, cut from the giant clamshell, are the most important and valuable wealth item of the Arapesh and neighbouring Abelam people. They are called YUA in the local language. Size, thickness and colour all contribute to the value of these shell rings. Also, the outside edge is more or less circular, but not of great importance as to its exact shape; what is important is that the internal circle be as close to a perfect circle as possible.
In an Abelam person’s eye, a near perfect circular shape makes a Yua more valuable. Other attributes that add to its value are the warm creamy colour, and fine bands of shell growth rings. This is an old shell, with a smooth finish from ages of handling; most likely the surface would have been cleaned, as it is important for the shells to “glow” when being displayed. The carved design is the beak of a hornbill ( calao ) – an important ancestor being for the Abelam people.

The clamshell rings were traditionally cut by specialists from the giant clamshell, using only bamboo (in combination with sand). It was a long and arduous task. After the cutting of the outer and inner circles, the shell was carefully polished to produce a pleasing and smooth surface.

YUA are used in the important transactions of life, primarily as a Bride Price. Such a large and well-made ring would be an important, if not the most important element of a bride price transaction. Other lesser shell wealth objects, pigs, food and pottery vessels are also part of the payment of the groom’s family to that of the bride. The addition of the nassa shell bands enhances the ring, and also personalizes it as belonging to a particular person

YUA are also used for compensation payments and traded at the funerals of Big Men. At such times they are displayed on the front wall of the large Spirit House where they are publicly viewed and distributed. This is one reason for the smaller shells, woven onto a band; Among all the shells on display, this immediately personalizes the shell for its owner.

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