Water Carrier Click to enlarge image
Water Carrier, Australian Museum number B008551 TLF resource R9598 Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

This is a water carrier made from the skin of a wallaby. On the left the skin of the wallaby's neck has been drawn together and on the right three knots are visible. It is brittle and cracked in appearance. It is 40 cm long x 16 cm wide x 10.5 cm deep.

Skin carriers of this type were made by First Nations people to carry substantial quantities of water through arid and semi-arid areas. This water carrier could have held approximately 6 L of water, making it a valuable resource in inland Australia. Its base is permanently sealed with knotted twine and tanned with resin to prevent water from escaping when the skin is carried upright. The neck is tied with twine, which would have been untied for access to the water.

The skin came from a bridled nailtail wallaby Onychogalea fraenata, a species that was common in the semi-arid areas of eastern Australia, and is now only found in a small pocket of inland Queensland. Trees and grasses common in semi-arid and arid Australia were used to source the resin and the plant fibres for the twine.

The dead wallaby's skin was prepared with care for its intended purpose. It was removed with as few incisions as possible. The head, legs and tail were removed with a chopping tool and the skin loosened from the muscle with a cutting blade. The skin was pulled down over the muscle and bone to remove it in one piece. The skin would then have been left to dry for a few weeks and tanned with resin to enhance its water-holding capability.

Many natural resources were adapted to carry water by Aboriginal people. The skins of kangaroos, wallabies, possums, bandicoots and other small mammals were used because they are waterproof. Near the sea, kelp - a form of seaweed - and large shells were used to carry water. Wooden bowls were used throughout Australia and, in tropical areas, large waxy leaves from rainforest plants were used to carry water short distances.

This rare surviving example of a water carrier was purchased by the Australian Museum in 1885, having been collected from the area between the Darling and Lachlan rivers in western NSW by a man from Mossgiel, about 620 km west of Sydney. The bag is typical of the skin water carriers made by First Nations people who lived in arid and semi-arid areas of Australia.