It is a multi-purpose shallow vessel, or dish with curved sides, ranging in length from 30–70 cm, and similar in shape to a canoe.
Coolamons were traditionally used by Aboriginal women to carry water, fruits, nuts, as well as to cradle babies. Today when women gather bush tucker, they usually use a billy can, bucket or flour tin. Coolamons were carried on the head when travelling any distance, or under the arm if used as a cradle. If carried on the head, a ring pad (akartne in Arrernte) was placed on the head, made out of possum and/or human hair string, twisted grass, or feathers.
This helped to cushion and support the carriage of the coolamon; the same purpose as those used by women in India and Africa to carry vessels on their heads. The Pintupi of the Western Desert would attach a double strand of plaited rope (ngalyibi) made of hair or plant fibre to sling the coolamon over their shoulders. They also wore smaller coolamons as hats, with the twine around the chin.
Coolamons are generally made by the men. They are usually made from a hardwood such as mallee. In Central Australia, the bean tree was often used. A piece of the outer bark of the tree is removed, then moulded over the fire to give it its distinctive curved sides. Deep ridges were made using a quartz stone knife. It needed to stand for a number of days, with a stick of wood holding it open to prevent it losing its shape. It may also be made of a knot or excrescence (“wirree”), from a tree.
Coolamons were often ornately decorated on their exterior with various etchings – depicting tribal insignia and totemic designs. They were also used in ceremonies, such as for aromatic smoking, which was believed to have purifying effects. They were rubbed regularly with fat, such as emu fat to keep the wood in good condition.
Some names in other Aboriginal languages
Coolamon is a word from the east coast of Australia, used by Murri, or Queensland Aborigines, as well as by the Dharug, or Eora people from the Sydney area. Some other names, and their respective languages, include:
- Donald Thomson, Bindibu Country, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1975, ISBN 0-17-005049-1, p101.
- Thomson, op cit, illustration 13