Carrying Tray

Date: early to mid-20th century

Geography: Australia, Western Desert, Northern Territory, Victoria River region

Culture: Wardaman

Medium: Wood, paint

Dimensions: H. 2 5/8 x W. 7 1/2 x D. 27 3/4 in. (6.6 x 19 x 70.5 cm)

Classification: Wood-Containers

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

Accession Number: 1979.206.1531


Widely used throughout central Australia, carrying trays, often referred to by the general term coolamon, are versatile all-purpose containers. Typically consisting of shallow, trough-shaped vessels (of which the decorated underside is shown in the photograph), coolamons are, or were, used by Aboriginal peoples to carry food, water, and even young infants when gathering food or moving from camp to camp. Masterpieces of practical design, the curved bottoms of coolamons allow the vessels to sit upright on uneven ground and help prevent them from being overturned. The material and ornamentation of coolamons varies. This example, from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory, is carved from softwood and brightly painted with red, yellow, and white ocher pigments. Coolamons of this type are primarily produced by peoples living on the northern fringes of Australia's central desert. Further south, the trays are typically made from hardwood coated in a monochrome red ocher and adorned with incised longitudinal grooves.