While some of the oldest Australian examples of marine shell ornamentation are in archaeological sites that were close to the Pleistocene coastline, in the southern Kimberley of northern Australia, shell beads and other marine objects have been found in both Pleistocene and Holocene contexts more than 300 km from the coast. One of the characteristics of marine shell ornaments is their bright, white, or lustrous appearance that seems to have been intrinsic to their selection as body adornments. Historical photographs and ethnographic evidence reveal that, in the recent past, Indigenous men, women, and children in coastal locations wore such objects in both secular and non-secular contexts. However, further away from their coastal source, the meaning and uses of these artefacts changed, and, in far-inland Australia, they were imbued with very powerful properties, only being used in gender- and age-restricted ceremonial contexts. Hence, archaeological distributions of marine objects, including shell beads, may be interpreted as reflecting differences in social meaning across time and space.