Resin: an essential piece of kit

By Marisa Giorgi, Information Officer, Queensland Museum

There is nothing new about the use of adhesives and sealants. They have been a critical element in the technology of First Australians for thousands of years. Plant-based resin has been employed in the production of many traditional tools and when prepared correctly, resin can become as hard as rock. There is evidence of resin-use in toolmaking from around the world. Pine tree resin mixed with beeswax was uncovered at a site in Italy dating back 40-55 thousand years.

But where does this resin come from? One of the most widely used resins in Australia is sourced from spinifex (species of Triodia), the prickly grass hummocks that feature prominently in the hills and plains of outback Australia.

The resin is a sticky coating on the tough spiny foliage of many spinifex grasses. Some species are extremely resinous. They are sticky to touch and often have a pungent aroma, particularly in hot weather when on occasion the resin can even drip from the foliage. First Australians would traditionally set the bush alight for a variety of reasons; just one benefit of this was the ease with which large amounts of resin could be collected from the bases of spinifex hummocks after they were burned. Other methods of collecting resin include threshing or beating the plant to release the resin.

Images L-R: Spear point secured with resin. This point has been made from glass (Kimberley region, WA). Photo: Peter Waddington, QM.
Iron axe head secured with resin. In this case a sharpened horseshoe has been used as the axe head (Walsh River, QLD). Photo: Peter Waddington, QM.

Other plants including grass trees (species of Xanthorrhoea) are also used for resin production. Hardened resins from various plants were sometimes pounded into a powder for subsequent processing and often mixed with other materials. These include charcoal, animal fat or animal dung. In far North Queensland the Yidinji Peoples mix grass tree resin with beeswax, charcoal, sand or dust, to prepare a cement for fixing stone axe heads to wooden handles and spear points to the shafts (a process called “hafting”). Many styles of spear-throwers, also called woomera, featured resin to attach the point or peg that would hold and propel the spear.

Resin requires heating to become malleable and when it cools it can form a type of cement. Resin is often stored in a large lump for later use and can be carried during hunting expeditions for tool repairs. Some spinifex resins can be reheated successfully while others can become brittle with reheating.

Fishhook strengthened with resin.

Apart from its use as a hafting adhesive, resin had a wide range of other purposes. The Yidinji people in North Queensland used the resin of scrub turpentine (species of Burcerascea) as a water-proofing agent to seal the holes in sewn bark water containers. And in the Sydney Basin area Gadigal Peoples used resin to repair canoes.

Resin is also used to attach decorative items such as red seeds to objects such as spear throwers. It has also been used as a binder within the ochre paint in rock art, is employed to strengthen fishhooks and can serve as fuel for a torch. Some communities such as the Nyungar in Western Australia used resin as a tanning agent in preparing leather. Occasionally the resin itself was shaped into decorative items. It comes as no surprise that such a versatile substance was an important trade item throughout Australia.

Spear-throwers, resin is used to secure the spear peg –  insert: decorations glued with resin (from Yarrabah, Qld)

Early European settlers also took advantage of this technology for repairs and also used the resins as a varnish.

The objects showcased here are only a few of the resin-containing objects on display in the Discovery Centre (we’ve identified twelve in total). See how many you can find next time you visit!

Do you have an interesting question or mystery object? Our helpful and knowledgeable staff at the Discovery Centre can answer your questions through our Ask an Expert inquiry service.