Shells in Clay and So Much More

Orator's Stool
Iatmul artist

The children will use their imaginations to interact with and discover elements of the Orator’s Stool. They will also have an opportunity to experiment with materials similar to those used to decorate the face on the stool.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 30 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • use their imaginations to contribute to a group story;
  • use fine motor skills to draw their own faces and press objects into clay.


  1. Warm-up: Have children sit in a circle. Tell them that they are going to tell a story. Ask someone to volunteer a story idea. Start the story, then have each child say a sentence as you go around the circle. The story will probably be very silly and get the kids laughing.
  2. Show children the picture of the stool. Have them name the figure and imagine what it might say to them.
  3. Ask the children to identify what the figure is made of, attending to all of the features on the face and body. Does it remind them of anything?
  4. Allow the children to draw their own faces on the 8 x 11 inch sheets
  5. Looking at the image again, point out the shells pressed into the clay around the edge of the face.
  6. Demonstrate how to press a thin layer of clay onto the cardstock, outlining the face they have drawn. Show how to push seashells into the clay. Pass out clay to each student and let them press clay around the outline of their face. Pass out shells and give students time to press the shells into the clay
  7. Remind students about the story they created during the warm-up. Tell them they are now going to create a story about the Orator’s Stool. Use the About the Art section included in this lesson to explain the term, orator, and provide cultural context for the Orator’s Stool. Have the children tell parts to the story just like in the warm-up. You might need/want to go around the circle twice. Retell the story, having the children call out repeated phrases.


  • Twenty seashells for each child (may use uncooked shell pasta if needed)
  • 4-6 oz. of air-dry clay and one piece of 8 x 11 inch cardstock for each child (Prepare the 8 x 11 inch pieces of cardstock by either hand-drawing or photocopying the outline of a face onto the sheets)
  • Assorted crayons and/or markers
  • About the Art section on the Iatmul culture, Papua New Guinea Orator’s Stool (included with the lesson plan)
  • One color copy of the stool for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Orator's Stool

About the Artist

This object was made by a member of the Iatmul [YAHT-mool] cultural group from the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (part of Melanesia). The religious life of the Sepik River was dominated by men’s societies, and wood carving of this kind was done exclusively by men. The artist who created this Orator’s Stool began by cutting the shape out of a large piece of wood. He then used sharp objects like obsidian knives or rodents’ teeth to further shape the figure and to carve details. To decorate the figure, he attached raffia around its waist, wrists, and ankles. He used feathers and shells to ornament the head. It’s possible that the artist painted the figure with charcoal, lime, or ochre.

This sculpture would have been kept inside a special house called a Men’s House, where Iatmul ceremonial activities often take place. Typically, each Iatmul community or town contains a few of these buildings, which serve as the center of community and celebration. The buildings are both visually imposing, as well as socially and spiritually influential. Women and uninitiated men are not able to enter the house.

What Inspired It

Every Iatmul community has its own ceremonial chair, similar to this one. This Orator’s Stool (also called a “speaking chair”) is not meant to be sat upon, but is used during village meetings, debates, and tribal ceremonies. During a discussion, the speaker stands next to the orator’s stool and hits the top of the stool with a cluster of leaves, sticks, and grass to validate important points in his argument. He also places leaves on the chair to confirm his statements. When the first speaker is finished and all the leaves lay on the chair, the next speaker can begin his address. After all of the speakers have stated their arguments, the village chief hits the chair a few more times and states a decision for all to follow. Orators also use these chairs to tell the community about the clan’s history and mythology while hitting the chair with a bundle of leaves to emphasize points.

The human figure is a common form in Sepik River art. As seen in this sculpture, figures were often given an elongated head and torso and short limbs. Special emphasis was placed on the head to show that it is the most important part of the body, where the spirit resides. The artist carved an elongated nose, possibly in imitation of a bird’s beak, and the nose is pierced with ornaments made of bone or boar’s tusk, just as the Iatmul people wear. The incised patterns on the chest and arms represent scarification patterns that would be seen on many Iatmul men. Scarification is part of a young man’s initiation into the men’s secret society and the scars are considered marks of beauty and status.


Crocodile (Wagen)

The Iatmul people believe that everything in the world is inhabited by a spirit. The figure represented here is the spirit Wagen [WAH-gen], a mythological giant in the form of a crocodile. Iatmul people believe that they were born from Wagen and that the world rests upon his back. The figure attached to the stool serves as a temporary dwelling for the spirit who presides over meetings and ensures that each speaker is truthful.


Young Iatmul men go through a series of rites, scarification, and seclusion as part of their initiation into the men’s secret society. Their bodies are incised with sharp blades, leaving scars that look like the teeth marks of a crocodile.


The large head emphasizes that it is the most important part of the body. The artist used most of the decorative materials—including shells, feathers, and bone—on the head.


Many Iatmul people wear nose ornaments similar to those on this sculpture.


Figures like this one often have curved eyebrows that create a heart-shaped face.


Cowry shells outline the figure’s face and decorate the nose. The artist also used shells to create large circular eyes.

Dark Lines

The artist may have used charcoal to draw the dark lines around the face, nose, and mouth. He also created designs on the figure’s forehead and drew circles around the eyes and tusks.


The figure’s legs are quite short when compared to the large head. Its knees are bent and mirror the angle of the stool’s legs.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.