Indigenous spinning top from Cape York, pre-1900
Aboriginal spinning top from northern Queensland
This is an Indigenous spinning top with a stick handle made from a rainforest hardwood The handle has been driven through the centre of a gourd and fixed there with beeswax and handspun bark fibre. The gourd is the fruit of the 'Benincasa hispida' plant, a trailing vine commonly known as winter melon, wax gourd or white gourd. A hole has been drilled into the gourd, and there are remnants of red and white ochre decoration. The gourd is 6.96 cm in diameter and the total length of the spinning top is 21.5 cm. It was collected from Cairns in northern Queensland in 1900.
Tops such as this one were used by Indigenous men in competitions to judge the quality of top construction and the skill of the players. The top was spun by twirling the handle between two open hands and letting go. The man whose top spun for the longest time would be the victor. These contests would have been a source of rivalry for the players and entertainment for spectators. This spinning top was used by men of the Yidinji language group from the Cairns region.
The top is designed so that the gourd turns on the short end of the spindle (or stick handle). The length of the stick is calculated to maximise the stability of the top when it is turning. The weight of the spindle offsets the weight of the gourd to provide balance.
A hole has been drilled into the gourd so that the top makes a humming sound when spinning. This may have been an imitation of the European practice. Indigenous humming tops were observed by non-Indigenous people only after 1898 and it is not known whether holes were drilled before European contact as this is one of the earliest tops collected.
The tops may have had cultural significance greater than their known use. The remnants of red and white ochre indicate that this top originally had a coloured pattern, the significance of which is currently unknown.
Indigenous peoples have adopted local resources to construct varying forms of spinning items throughout Australia. In moist tropical areas of Australia, wherever the 'Benincasa hispida' plant is able to grow, they were made from gourds. As well as gourds, spinning tops or balls have been constructed from wood, beeswax, volcanic rock, shells, nuts, plant fibre, gypsum and clay. In some cases the tops are propelled with string made from twisted plant fibres.
This spinning top is a rare surviving example of an Aboriginal item used for play and is one of six collected in 1900 by Dr Walter Edmund Roth, who was First Protector of Aboriginals for north Queensland from 1898 to 1905. In 1905 the Australian Museum purchased his entire collection, now known as the Roth Collection.
Ms Helen Wheeler , Education Project Officer