Shell dolls Click to enlarge image
Shell dolls were played with by both girls and boys, and were a way of teaching young children an understanding of different family groupings. The shells represented the different members of their families, and were moved about in various family and social groupings. The larger shells represented the parents and adults, while the smaller ones symbolised the children. Thirty-two shell dolls were collected by Australian Museum anthropologist Frederick McCarthy during the 1948 American– Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Image: Stuart Humphreys
Australian Museum

Dolls were often carried around in baskets, just like real babies. The dolls were characteristically different depending on geographical area, and available materials. Early dolls were simply made from easily obtained materials, such as shells and plant materials.

Arnhem Land shell dolls

During the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition, Museum anthropologist Frederick McCarthy collected 30 or so shell dolls at Hemple Bay, Groote Eylandt. While most are unornamented conical shells, several were wrapped in fabric. According to McCarthy, these were used by both boys and girls to represent the different members of their families and were moved about in various groupings. The larger shells represented the parents, whilst the smaller ones were the children.

Dolls from North Queensland

The Australian Museum has three dolls dating from the early twentieth century, collected from Mapoon, Batavia River, Cape York, Queensland. One was collected by Charles Hedley and acquired by the Museum in 1903, and the other two were collected by Dr Walter Edmund Roth in 1903, and acquired by the Museum in 1905. The dolls are made from a slightly curved stick, with one end pointed. At the centre of each stick is a fibre twine skirt, representing a native girdle on the stick, representing a girl. The sticks of the dolls collected by Roth are also painted with black and white pigment.

Kamma dolls from Keppel Island

Dolls on Keppel Island were made from the butt of a grass tree, Xanthorrhoea. These cone shaped dolls are known as “kamma”. Three were acquired from Walter Roth in 1905, and are dated to 1897. The fourth was donated by D. Drain in 1926. Roth remarked on these dolls, which were also considered to be charms, in Games, Sport and Amusements of the Northern Queensland Aboriginals (1902);

“On Keppel Island I have observed girls and women nursing dolls in their arms like babies. These dolls in the form of cones, varied in length (up to 15 inches) and thickness, were coloured with red ochre and named ‘kamma’ after the grass-tree (Xanthorrhoea) from out of the butt of which they were cut... I have good ground for believing that these cones are also intended as charms for begetting fine, strong children”.

Budgerree dolls

Our collection also includes two fabric dolls which were made in Australia, and designed by Sarah Midgley. The dolls are known as Budgerree dolls, named after a childhood friend, and were designed between the late 1920’s and 1940’s.