Dala (shell ornament) made of a wedgewood plate

British Museum

British Museum

From the coast of New Guinea to the eastern islands of Solomon Islands, people made ornaments of turtleshell fretwork mounted on disks of white shell. These included the kapkap of Papua New Guinea and the tema of Santa Cruz, but the finest were the head ornaments of the western and central Solomon Islands, known as dala. This example is in the style of the New Georgia group, where the overlay was cut as thin as a pencil line by sawing the turtleshell with a strip of rattan which heated it by friction, making it softer to cut.

Besides this highly skilled work, a dala required a plate of fossilised clamshell to be sawn and ground into a thin disk through many days of hard work. However, in this example the maker simply cut out the base of a willow-pattern china plate, which was probably as valuable for its scarcity in the late nineteenth century, as a shell disk was for the labour of making it.

Fine dala like this were worn and exchanged by senior men as prestigious valuables, and also prized by Europeans as exquisite trinkets. This particular one was looted from a house in Roviana in the New Georgia group during a raid by the British Resident Commissioner Charles Woodford in 1900, to enforce a colonial ban on capturing enemy heads. New Georgia group communities were led by powerful warrior chiefs, who the British eventually subdued and pacified through this kind of intimidation as they took control of Solomon Islands in the early twentieth century.

The British Museum acknowledges contemporary cultural perspectives associated with the objects in its collection. Please note: cultural rights may apply to this object.

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  • Title: Dala (shell ornament) made of a wedgewood plate
  • Physical Dimensions: Diameter: 13.50cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Registration number: Oc1900,1008.1
  • Place: Found/Acquired Roviana
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: turtle-shell; ceramic; shell; textile
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Previous owner/ex-collection Woodford, Charles Morris