New Zealand is an island nation in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It is separated from Australia by the Tasman Sea. New Zealand was a British colony until 1907 and did not achieve full independence from Great Britain until 1947. New Zealand’s original inhabitants, the Maori, migrated from Polynesian islands in three separate waves between AD 950 and 1350. The first European to discover New Zealand was Abel Tasman, a navigator for the Dutch East India Company, in 1642. In the 1790s, the islands began to attract whalers from Europe who established the first settlements on the coast. In 1814, the first missionary station was set up in the Bay of Islands. Europeans and Australians began arriving in New Zealand in large numbers in the 1830s. In 1840, the Maori chieftains entered into a compact with them, the Treaty of Waitangi. Under this agreement the Maori granted sovereignty (authority) over their land to Britain’s Queen Victoria while retaining territorial rights, and New Zealand became a British colony. More settlers arrived after gold was discovered in 1861. After the Maori Wars (1860–70), resulting largely from disputes over land rights and sovereignty, New Zealand rapidly increased in wealth and population. With the introduction of refrigerated shipping in 1882, New Zealand became one of the world’s great exporters of dairy, produce, and meat. In 1907, New Zealand was made a Dominion (territory) of Great Britain. In 1947, the New Zealand government formally claimed complete independence while remaining a member of the British Commonwealth. Since 1984 New Zealand has actively pursued an antinuclear policy. It refused to admit a U.S. warship to one of its ports because of the possibility that there were nuclear arms on board. In 1986 the United States responded by canceling its military obligations to New Zealand under a 1951 agreement. The United States also banned high-level contacts with the New Zealand government, a ban that was removed (annulled) in 1990.


New Zealand is situated in the southwest Pacific Ocean. It is about the size of the state of Colorado. New Zealand consists of two main islands—North Island and South Island—and several dozen minor ones. Most of its large cities, including the capital city of Wellington, are located on North Island. North Island is also known for its two active volcanoes. South Island is the larger of the two islands and the location of the scenic Southern Alps.

Over 85 percent of New Zealand’s population is of European (mostly British) descent. The Maori, New Zealand’s first inhabitants, are the country’s most significant minority group. They represent close to 10 percent of the population. People of non-Maori Polynesian descent, as well as those with Chinese, Indian, and southeast Asian ancestry, account for the remainder of New Zealand’s population.

New Zealand Map

Print and pattern in New Zealand textiles

New Zealand’s textile designs provide a fascinating window on our social history. Most were used in practical and fashionable items that have long since been discarded. Fortunately the Museum holds a small historical collection and a growing number of contemporary works.Blanche Wormald created linocut prints with distinctively New Zealand motifs, as this sample fabric shows.

Often used and discarded

One the one hand, the marketability of textiles has offered artists – frequently women – the opportunity to make a living from their work. On the other hand, the domestic nature of these objects means that they are often used and then discarded when no longer serviceable or fashionable. Auckland Museum holds a small collection of mid-20th century printed textiles, and a growing collection of contemporary textiles and garments with bespoke prints.

Hand printing in the 20th century

May Smith graduated from the Elam School of Art in 1931 and soon turned to textile design and production as a way of profiting from her skills. Her hand-blocked works used motifs from New Zealand flora in an abstract and repetitive style. They sold internationally, as well as in local galleries such as the Helen Hitching gallery in Wellington. Elam graduate Blanche Wormald frequently adapted Maori kowhaiwhai and rock drawings as her subject. Like Smith, Wormald worked with wood or lino blocks to design, prepare and produce textiles by hand. The linocut printing technique uses blocks created from a layer of linoleum adhered to wood. Areas of the linoleum layer are then cut away by the artist, leaving a raised area which forms the pattern when inked. The resulting blocks are durable and can be used for printing hundreds of times; so much so that in 1992 textile designer Ingrid Dub belt used Blanche’s original blocks to reproduce her designs. Auckland Museum holds several examples of these reprints, as well as 72 print blocks.

Expressions of identity

Fabric can offer a literal blank canvas for the expression of ideas, and this is particularly evident in the work produced by Adrienne Foote under her Footeprints brand. Established in 1983, Footeprints textiles reflect the vivid colours of the decade and send strong messages about the social and political issues of the time. One anti-nuclear design features humorously grotesque animal hybrids, such as eight-legged cats swimming alongside fish with human arms. In 1994, Foote formed a partnership with fashion designer Doris de Pont and created the high-end womenswear label D.N.A., in one range pairing collaged classical motifs with rich fabrics like silk velvet. For her Winter 2004 collection ‘Let’s Gather Here’, de Pont used the titular work by Niuean artist John Pule as a textile print, referencing the form of Pacific tatau and barkcloth patterns.

A Local Motif; Use of kōwhaiwhai patterns in printed textiles

The curvilinear decoration known as kōwhaiwhai is just one of the art forms created by
Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, but it is perhaps the most ubiquitous in New
Zealand’s graphic identity. Visual shorthand for “New Zealand-ness” in a global setting,
kōwhaiwhai designs appear in sports uniforms, international beauty pageant outfits, wearable art costumes, and in the uniform of the national airline. The scroll-like forms are evocative of other conventional styles of ornamentation, such as art nouveau and rococo, and naturally lend themselves to print and pattern. Denotative meaning of the symbols is not often retained in this context, but kōwhaiwhai patterns have nevertheless been utilised in shifting ways over the past 120 years to speak strongly of both New Zealand and Māori identity. In the context of traditional Māori art, kōwhaiwhai is typically a form of surface decoration based on curvilinear elements. The form known as the koru, or pitau, is a curved stalk with bulb which evokes the unfurling fern frond; the kape form, sometimes described as an “eyebrow” shape, is a crescent interspersed with circular indentations; and the rauru is a spiral. The artist may employ these elements individually or combine them to  form complex patterns with a broader frame of reference to the natural world, such as the Mangopare design which represents the hammerhead shark. Today, the colours most commonly associated with kōwhaiwhai are red, black, and white; a convention which stems from the mid-19th century use of pigments made from soot and ochre on unpainted timber.
Some of the earliest examples of kōwhaiwhai designs can be found on hoe (canoe paddles); however, we see the pattern applied with the greatest frequency on the heke (rafters) of the Māori meeting house. The wharenui is the central meeting house on the marae – the communal area of an individual tribe – and is often a rich showcase of Māori art in the forms of whakairo (carving), tukutuku (a form of weaving), and painting. More than this, the wharenui can be the literal embodiment of a tribal ancestor, and the placement and subject of the art contained within is carefully planned to reflect this.
Customary forms of representation in the wharenui include a carved face (koruru) at the apex of the front gable which represents the head of the body; the central ridgepole (tahuhu), the backbone; the bargeboards (maihi), the arms spread in welcome; and the painted rafters (heke), the ribs. The art forms of whakairo, tukutuku and kōwhaiwhai all have coded meanings which reflect the genealogy of the tribe, and according to historian Roger Neich, “must be considered in concert, as they all bring their contribution to the total message of the house.” Although kōwhaiwhai designs in are site-specific and vary from region to region, in the collective New Zealand psyche one particular “style” or “look” predominates. The Art and workmanship of the Maori race in New Zealand published by ethnologist Augustus Hamilton in 1896 and 1900, was for many years the most widely-reproduced reference for kōwhaiwhai and is largely responsible for this narrow understanding of the art form. Nevertheless, it is these patterns which have had a lasting influence on the graphic identity of New Zealand.

Soon after its publication, designs copied from Hamilton began to appear on everyday goods. In 1907, English ceramic manufacturer Doulton & Co produced a china pattern featuring a transfer-printed Mangopare border closely resembling a rafter pattern copied by Williams. Known as “Maori Art”, the popular pattern was in production until 1939. Similar use of indigenous iconography emerged in domestic craft. In a 1940s place mat sewn
by a member of the North Shore Embroiderers Guild, the maker has with some inventiveness simplified Hamilton design number eight (from Ngāi Tūhoe tribe) into geometric and koru forms suitable for applique. Most domestic sewers at this time were working from pre-printed designs, many of which featured Māori figural imagery combined with native flora. This placemat, however, appears to be an original design, suggesting that the Hamilton illustrations were a familiar reference for middleclass Pākehā (European descent) women who would otherwise have had very little contact with Māori culture.

Design Maori Motifs (D67) utilises a geometric ball-and-bar form very like an illustration from Phillips, which in turn is drawn from a photograph published in the Hamilton study. Higgs organises the element into an grid, creating an abstracted pattern that art historian Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins argues is “a re-ordering and reconstruction of those elements as a new modernist art” – some years before artists like Gordon Walters absorbed Māori art forms into abstract modernism. In this example, we see how the forms of kōwhaiwhai have been reinterpreted to reflect the mode, yet are still drawn from the same limited source material.

Blanche Wormald was one of a group of artists at this time creating hand printed linens and dress lengths from lino blocks which featured native flora and fauna
alongside Māori carving, kōwhaiwhai, and rock art designs. A 1959 New Zealand Women’s
Weekly article on Wormald writes of the importance of her subject matter, saying: “After all, in most countries in the world, every effort is made to preserve historical, traditional designs, folk-lore, and native handwork. If New Zealand does not follow suit, much will be lost, and in years to come our nation will be considerably poorer.”5 This suggests a more noble intention than was probably true of the many other commercially-produced textiles of this nature. New Zealand imagery was indiscriminately thrown together on tea towels and scarves for a souvenir market, and 1960s-1970s fashion prints reinterpreted kōwhaiwhai and koru forms as bold, pop-art style graphic prints.

a Pakeha cultural world. Our Pakeha colleagues now argue that Maori art is really New
Zealand art and is thus part of the New Zealand image.” Developments in the national education programme helped foster a more genuine understanding of New Zealand’s bi cultural heritage. Gordon Tovey, the first supervisor of art and craft for the Department of Education, was instrumental in inserting Māori art into the school curriculum. His 1961 book The Arts of the Maori was issued to every schoolchild, and identified kōwhaiwhai patterns as an ideal way to introduce children to Māori art; he suggested the use of crayons and full arm movements to create “large and well rounded work.” Tovey also trained a new generation of arts advisers such as Ralph Hotere, Cliff Whiting, and Sandy Adsett, who went on to become leading contemporary Māori artists.The 1960s and 70s brought a period of Māori nationalism and political engagement which went hand in hand with the reclamation of Māori cultural heritage. No-one better recognised the potential in kōwhaiwhai to visually assert Māori identity than politician Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. She used her platform as a Member of Parliament to advocate for the rights of Māori and women and, through her choice of wardrobe, brought Māori art into government spaces typically dominated by Pākehā men.The first of Tirikatene-Sullivan’s iconic shift dresses was designed from a piece of fabric printed with a bold black and white Mangopare pattern by Sandy Adsett, an artist of the Tovey generation. The pattern’s association with the hammerhead shark   characteristics of strength and tenacity, those which she herself embodied. Tirikatene Sullivan went on to work with artisans such as Pākehā fabric designer Fanny Buss and established a boutique called Ethnic Art Studio in Wellington, selling high-quality handmade garments patterned with Māori iconography. This meshing of traditional Māori art with contemporary fashion was done in consultation with her elders, who permitted this form of cultural adaptation.

A landmark example of these efforts came in 1998, when New Zealand swimwear
manufacturer Moontide produced a bikini with an all-over print of brown and white
kōwhaiwhai based on the Mangopare pattern. Moontide signed an agreement with Pirarakau, a subtribe which had developed the design and trademarked it under their company Kia Ora Promotions. This non-exclusive agreement allowed Moontide to market the design in exchange for a percentage of the profits from the swimsuit. Although lauded as example of a Pākehā company going about it “the right way”, there were still questions raised about the true ownership of a design shared by multiple tribes, and the sometimes uneasy association of cultural property with commerce.13 Tā moko (tattoo) artist Julie Paama-Pengelly asserts the Māori right to utilise their art in this way, arguing that “if Maori don’t use their art in a commercial manner they’re not only likely to starve, but some less deserving Pakeha or foreigner comes along to feast on the advantage.”
14 This perspective isn’t merely profitdriven – it asserts the right of Māori to have control over their artistic inheritance, and tom make it visible in all aspects of New Zealand society, including commercial design.

This view is shared by fellow artist Rangi Kipa, who undertook a commission from
underwear manufacturer Jockey to create a design based on both their existing logo and tā
moko. Kipa took the rape, or spiral, for his base design. He believed this to be an appropriate pattern for underwear as this form is often used on the buttocks in tā moko. Although Kipa had some freedom in creating the design, the nature of the product meant he had little control over the public dissemination of his work; an image featuring All Black Dan Carter appeared on a 26m-high billboard at a central Auckland intersection. Nevertheless, Kipa reflected positively on the experience: “I am always wanting to lift the visibility of Maori design languages in the mainstream platforms and I always see it as an opportunity to exercise my agency to influence the people involved in these types of cross-cultural transition(s). ”Because they are available in the public domain, Augustus Hamilton’s rafter designs are easily accessible and require no copyright permission to reproduce. Users of online marketplaces like are able to load designs straight on to the website and sell them as clothing, accessories, and home furnishings like shower curtains, allowing ancestral art to hang alongside a toilet. Napier artist Raewyn Tauira Paterson was mindful of this when she chose to sell her designs through Developed through her Masters in Professional Creative Practice, Paterson wanted to create new patterns appropriate for use in every aspect of the suburban home, so that Māori visual culture was embedded in every surface, much as it is in the interior of the wharenui on the Marae. The inspiration for her designs came as the result of an investigation into contemporary textile design, with particular attention to the garments of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. In consulting with a focus group of Māori women, Paterson found that they were not seeking designs that specifically linked to their tribal identity, but wanted to wear patterns that were “undeniably Māori and elegant, and made them feel proud in (their) identity” – echoing the sentiments of Tirikatene-Sullivan.16 Her final Kape collection referenced traditional Māori textile forms through use of the cloak silhouette, and she organises her kōwhaiwhai motifs in a geometric layout which evokes tāniko hand weaving.

Everyday objects featuring kōwhaiwhai designs have been embraced for their cultural
resonance, even when mass-produced outside of New Zealand. The original denotative role
of kōwhaiwhai – to illustrate tribal genealogy – is retained in the context of the marae, but the transition from the wharenui rafters to textiles has brought this art form into day-to-day life. These transitions are also occurring in other Māori art forms. Kapa haka dance costumes which customarily feature geometric tāniko weaving have begun to incorporate curvilinear kōwhaiwhai-derived patterns. Contemporary examples render these patterns through crossstitch which mimics the materiality of tāniko, or use commercial cotton fabric printed with kōwhaiwhai. From familiar patterns which have been in use for over 100 years, to new interpretations by contemporary Māori artists, kōwhaiwhai designs have been used in textiles project indigenous identity even at some distance from their original context.


Textile Designs

The finest Maori designs on textiles are those found in taniko, the coloured borders of cloaks, made of fine flax fibre. These designs were usually worked in black, red, and white. The same patterns are used in plaited baskets and floor mats, although naturally the work is coarser than in taniko. Much the same patterns occur also in tukutuku or arapaki, the reed panelling on the inside walls of superior houses. In all of these techniques the Maori had to build up his designs on a rectilinear base and could not use the curved designs so popular in his other art forms. Thus the textile designs are purely geometrical, consisting of triangles, diamonds, diagonal bars, and stepped patterns. An analysis of the patterns used in traditional taniko is to be found in Phillipps’s Maori Rafter and Taniko Designs. Modern departures from tradition include such motifs as stars, fern leaves, and initial letters.

The common designs used in plaited work include nihotaniwha (dragon’s teeth), a large triangle; nihoniho (little teeth), a series of small triangles; waharua (double mouth) a diamond-shaped outline; and kaokao (armpits), a motif shaped like a roman “W” or “M”. Reed panels, which are placed between the wall slabs inside a superior house, consist of toetoe reeds (kakaho) set side by side vertically, with horizontal wooden laths (kaho) lashed in front of the kakaho. The kaho are coloured red or black. On this framework, somewhat like a large cross-stitch base, coloured patterns are produced by thin strips of native grasses laced round both the kakaho and the kaho. The grass used is pingao, a bright orange coastal grass, and kiekie (Freycinetia banksii), which is bleached white, or died black by immersion in a certain type of mud found in swamps. The designs used on reed panels have intriguing names. Where the whole panel is covered with white crosses, it is called purapura whetu (star seeds). Vertical bands of white crosses are known as roimata, or tears. A diamond motif with the diamond usually filled in in colour is called patiki, or flatfish. A very common stepped design is named poutama. Many new designs have been introduced in European times. It is not uncommon nowadays to see human figures depicted on reed panels. This seems to date from the erection of the house “Porourangi”, at Waiomatatini, in the 1870s. An admirable study on reed-panelling was published by Buck in the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute, Vol. 53, 1921.

Origin of Maori Carving

According to the tradition of some tribes, carving was invented by Rauru, the son of a remote ancestor named Toi. Others say that an ancestor named Rua, after defeating the Ponaturi, a people who lived under the sea, brought back the carved slabs from the Ponaturi meeting house and used them as patterns for the first Maori carved house. European students have suggested many origins, including Melanesia, Peru, and India. The fact that Maori carving differs from that of tropical Polynesia has given rise to many theories. There is little doubt, however, that the basic patterns came with the Maori from Polynesia. With the exception of Samoa and Niue, carved representations of humans were reasonably common in all of the larger Polynesian islands. Only one figure is known from Samoa, and that may be of Tongan origin. Tongan carved figures are naturalistic, with a pointed chin, the arms normally extended down the sides, and the knees bent. The same pointed chin occurs in the Society Group, the Austral Islands, and some of the Cook Islands. But throughout Eastern Polynesia there is a tendency towards a more grotesque, stylised figure. There is a strong family resemblance among the carved figures of Hawai’i, the Marquesas, and New Zealand. Gilbert Archey has shown that the very common arrangement found in Maori carving (a full-faced relief figure flanked by figures in profile) is also found in Rarotonga. Many of the Maori surface patterns could have evolved from these found in the Cook Islands. Although Maori carving differs from that of the Polynesian islands, it is equally true that the styles of the different islands also differ quite widely from one another. Even neighbouring islands in the Southern Cook Group show considerable divergence. Rarotongan carving is immediately distinguishable from that of Mangaia, its nearest neighbour, while Mangaian carving is quite unlike that of Mitiaro, and so on. This being so, it is not in the least surprising to find that the Maoris, separated from their kinsmen by long distances, and for centuries, have developed a characteristic style of their own. Nevertheless, there is a common thread running through Polynesian art which shows its evolution from the same basic designs.

It is apparent that Maori carving has developed greatly since the first Polynesians came to New Zealand. The earliest settlers probably brought with them a fairly simple set of basic designs and a small range of largely geometrical surface patterns with straight lines rather than the curvilinear patterns almost universally used when the Europeans first arrived. Archaeologists, particularly in the South Island, have recovered a number of archaic objects decorated with rectilinear patterns or simple notching similar to those found in many parts of tropical Polynesia. At the same time, the Maoris were not the only Polynesians to use spirals and other curvilinear patterns. The supposed absence of the spiral from the rest of Polynesia has been one of the arguments for tracing Maori carving to other areas, such as South America. The spiral, however, occurs in other Polynesian cultures, especially in the Marquesas, where it is used as a conventionalised ear on human figures, as the antennae of insects, and sometimes as a decoration on the knees of human figures, just as in Maori carving. Multiple spirals of the Maori type are also found in old tapa designs in Niue. The great development of carving in New Zealand was probably due to three factors. First, there was an abundance of straight-grained, easily worked totara timber, quite unlike the dense, cross-grained timbers of tropical Polynesia. Secondly, there was nephrite (greenstone), which could be fashioned into adzes and chisels far superior to the basalt, shell, or limestone adzes of the Pacific Islands. Thirdly, the population of New Zealand was far greater than that of most individual islands in Polynesia and probably contained elements from different parts of Polynesia. This would naturally lead to a faster development than would be expected in a small insular community.

The Maori Carver and His Implements

Carving, particularly the main types on buildings and canoes, was an honoured profession. The services of an eminent tohunga whakairo (carver) were keenly sought after, not only by his own tribe, but even by distant tribes. In some tribes carvers tended to come from certain subtribes which specialised in carving, as, for instance, the Ngati Tarawhai hapu of the Arawa tribe. Carving was a tapu occupation, with its appropriate ritual and prohibitions. Women were not allowed to be present while a craftsman was working. All chips from carving had to be carefully collected and burned in a special fire in case they became contaminated by contact with cooking. When a building was being carved, students would be employed under the watchful eye of the experts. This is still the way of passing the craft on.

High-relief carving was done with a greenstone adze (nowadays with a steel adze), the carver standing on top of the slab of timber while working. Lower relief work and the finishing of the high relief was done with smaller adzes with short handles. The surface decoration was done with chisels and a mallet. The mallet was not like the European mallet; it was about a foot long, rectangular or rounded in cross section, with a grip fashioned at one end. Fine chisels were made of greenstone or other fine-grained stone, or possibly of bone. Contrary to the popular conception, greenstone chisels take a keen edge and retain it reasonably well.

Elements of Carving

Maori carving design is predominantly made up of human figures. Next in importance is the manaia which seems (to the writer) to be also a human figure in most cases. The spiral is another important element. Very much less frequent are two sea monsters (the marakihau and the whale), and lizard, birds, fish, and dogs, the latter being very rare in old carvings. There are a number of surface patterns, which will be described later.

The Human Figure

There are two main classes of human figure, those with a more or less naturalistic head and those with a grotesque head. The naturalistic style is more often carved in the round, but is also found in relief carving. A notable feature of these figures is the care and attention devoted to facial tattooing, both on male and on female figures. This often contrasts with surprisingly rough finishing on the body. It has frequently been said that naturalistic figures are portraits of actual people, but this is to be doubted as a portrait would inevitably attract the tapu of the person represented. Generally speaking, although the head may be well proportioned, the body is squat and shortened in the same way as the grotesque figures. Grotesque figures are of many types and there are wide differences in the styles adopted in different parts of New Zealand. These tribal or district styles will be referred to in more detail later. As with naturalistic figures, grotesque human figures occur both in the round and in relief carving. There are many theories as to why the Maori so distorted the human figure. The simplest explanation is that the carver used his artistic licence to fit his basic design, the human figure, into the space available to him in a satisfying way. Archey points out that the human figure in its natural shape does not satisfactorily fit a broad slab of timber, such as the Maori used in house building.

Even more theories have been put forward to explain the characteristically three-fingered hand. It should be remembered that the Maori was not so obsessed with the three-fingered hand as the European student has been. The five-fingered hand is by no means uncommon in carving and is frequent in some districts. The most common treatment is a four-fingered hand, that is, three fingers and a thumb. A hand with three fingers and no thumb is less common. In some areas there are sometimes only two, or even one, finger and a thumb. The origin of the curious treatment of the hands in carving is still (and probably will remain) unknown. The explanation sometimes given to tourists that the three fingers represent the Holy Trinity is, of course, nonsense. In seeking an origin it seems reasonable to examine the situation in tropical Polynesia, the origin of the Maori. It is interesting to observe that the Maori’s nearest relations, the Cook Islanders, also carved a three-fingered hand on occasions, and sometimes a four-fingered hand. The most noticeable thing in Polynesian carving, however, is the perfunctory treatment of the human hand. The fingers are often not shown at all, and very often simply by two or three shallow grooves cut into the hand. It appears, therefore, that the Polynesians, like modern artists, were satisfied to give an impression of hands. It is quite feasible that the practice of indicating the fingers by two or three grooves became a convention resulting in hands with three or four fingers, according to the number of grooves. With easier material and better tools, the Maori began to elaborate his carving and paid more attention to the hands, but the established conventions remained.

It is usual, but not invariable, for grotesque figures to be carved in the posture of the haka, with the knees bent, the body crouched, and the tongue protruding.

The Manaia

This curious feature of Maori carving has been the subject of much controversy and is variously seen as a bird-headed man, a bird, a serpent, or a human figure in profile. The name is all that has been left to us by authoritative Maoris. Williams’ Dictionary of the Maori Language gives the following meanings for manaia: a grotesque beaked figure sometimes introduced in carving; ornamental work, a lizard; the sea-horse; a raft; and, as an adjective, fastidious. It is interesting that in Samoa the word (with the causative prefix) fa’amanaia means to decorate or embellish. In Niue the cognate word fakamanaia means the same. As the main use of the manaia is to embellish the principal figures, it seems very likely that the name simply means “embellishment” or “decoration”.

A practical study of Maori carving (that is, done by adze or a chisel and a mallet) quickly brings out two outstanding features. The first is that, apart from the naturalistic figure, every type of full-faced figure has a manaia to match. The second feature is that the head of the manaia can, in each case, be recognised as half of the head of the appropriate matching figure divided down the middle of the face. This obvious fact does not appear to have been noted in a scientific paper until Archey drew attention to it in 1933. It is quite clear that most, at least, of the manaia in carving are grotesque human figures shown in profile. This view is supported by the fact that full-faced figures and manaia may be used interchangeably in certain types of carving. A good example is the pare, or door lintel, which almost invariably has three main figures. These may be three full-faced figures or one central full-faced figure with a manaia on either side.

Many experts strongly contend that the manaia is a bird-headed man, or even a bird. There is very little traditional evidence to support either view and, as Archey has pointed out, the manaia normally has the distinctly non-avian characteristic of teeth, or at least one tooth. The very fact that only the name has come down to us from the ancient carvers seems to imply that there was nothing extraordinary about the manaia and that it was just another example of the primary element in carving the human figure. At the same time there is very good evidence, which will be referred to later, that Maori art does include birds.

The manaia is a most versatile creature of the greatest use to carvers, as it can be distorted or mutilated, almost at will, to fit any space which needs to be filled. It may simply be any eye and a mouth, with or without a nose, tongue, or teeth; it may be a head and one arm, with or without hand; it may have two arms and no body, one arm, one leg, and a body, or the full complement of body and extremities. Manaia may be used to form the hands or fingers of large figures, or sometimes even the arms or feet. In most carving compositions the background between the high-relief figures is filled in with manaia engaged in the most amazing contortions. It is common for a part of one manaia to form part of another one; for instance, the curved arm of one may also be the mouth of an adjacent manaia. Occasionally a manaia may look very like a snake. But what appears to be a snake body may simply be a curved arm with the hand not shown.

The Marakihau

This is a curious, semi-human figure which looks remarkably like a first cousin of the European mermaid. From the waist up the marakihau is a normal, stylised, human figure, but below the waist it had a curled extremity ending in a fish tail. The tongue is a long tube (ngongo) ending in a cup, and a fish is usually shown being sucked into the tongue. Earlier examples have conventionalised triangular scales on the edge of the abdomen and also on top of the head. According to Hamilton, the marakihau was fabled to draw both canoes and fish through its tubular tongue. During the past 70 or 80 years the marakihau has undergone a strange transformation. By about 1880 the scales had disappeared from the body and those on the head had been replaced by a pair of horns in the best Viking manner. By 1890 some examples lacked both scales and horns, but retained the fish tail, the tubular tongue, and the fish. In 1900 we see the marakihau with the characteristic fish tail, but lacking all of the other distinguishing marks, and also at about that time, on the Wairaka carved house at Whakatane, there came the final merger with the European mermaid, long coiled plaits of hair and breasts complete.

The marakihau proper seems to have been confined mainly to the Matatua tribes of the Bay of Plenty and Urewera. It is found in the carved house at Te Kuiti, but some of the carvers of that house were from the Matatua area. Archey (Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 42, 1933, p. 171, et seq.) illustrates a possible evolution of the marakihau from a fairly widespread feature in Maori carving, where one leg of a human figure is formed by a prolongation of the body, often with the leg curled inwards and upwards. The result is quite like the marakihau, but lacks its specialised characteristics. The extensions of the body to form one leg is found in North Auckland and Taranaki and in Ngati Porou carvings from the East Coast, North of Gisborne. Archey (JPS, Vol. 45, p. 49) illustrates a similar type of figure in greenstone ornaments.

The Lizard

In a monograph by Elsdon Best (N.Z. Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. V, p. 321) there are various illustrations of lizards in Maori carving. With two exceptions, all of the examples illustrated are Arawa work of the later nineteenth century. This does not mean, however, that the lizard is a post-European feature, especially in view of the continuous tradition of carving in the Arawa district. The carved house at the Spa Hotel, Taupo, was the work of Wero, one of the most outstanding carvers of Te Arawa in the middle of the nineteenth century and a pupil of other famous carvers. In this house a large lizard is superimposed on the body of the figure at the base of the pou toko manawa, or central pole supporting the ridgepole. Two of the illustrations in Best’s paper show lizards on ridgepole supports. This may be significant in view of Best’s statement that a lizard was sometimes buried beneath one of the three posts supporting the ridgepole of a school of learning or other important building, the lizard being generally viewed as an effective guardian. Two of the examples figured by Best show a lizard on the koruru head at the gable of a house. Hochstetter saw a lizard carved on the gable of a house when he visited Ohinemutu in 1859.

The lizard is also found in North Auckland carvings. A particularly fine example given by Best is on the lid of a burial chest. Another lizard appears on the supporting post of a small carved storehouse painted by Earle in North Auckland in 1827 and given in Phillipps (Maori Houses and Food Stores, 1952, p. 181). This storehouse is the kind used to hold the bones of important people. There is probably an element of protection in both of these northern examples. The same may be said for a large lizard carved on a tomb illustrated by Taylor (Te Ika a Maui, 1855, p. 106). There is a lizard carved on the outer threshold of the storehouse “Hinana” built by Iwikau (Te Heuheu Tukino III) of Ngati Tuwharetoa between 1854 and 1856. This again may have been a warning of the tapu nature of the building. The elaborate pataka built by Te Pokiha of Te Arawa in 1868 and now in the Auckland Museum has a series of lizards carved on the ridgepole. In the Dominion Museum there is a canoe thwart on which there are two lizards. It is said to have been the thwart on which the Tohunga sat. Best’s paper also has an illustration of a lizard carved on a bone flute in the British Museum. The lizard was sometimes carved in the form of an amulet. A good example is given by Skinner (JPS, Vol. 43, p. 196). A beautiful example of Maori rock painting depicting two reptilian figures faces the same page.


Apart from its doubtful identification with the manaia, the bird is found in Maori art, especially in rock paintings, but also in bone and stone amulets and even in wood. A bone chest from Rarotoka Island in Foveaux Strait, now in the Otago Museum, is a notable example in wood. The chest, which stands on a supporting post, is carved on the shape of a bird with wings, although the head is of a stylised human type. Skinner (JPS, Vol. 42, p. 110) gives a small carved object from Waverley with a human head and, protruding from the top of the head, what could only be described as the beak of a bird with the nostrils clearly indicated. In the same paper (JPS, Vol. 43, p. 201) Skinner gives a pendant from Banks Peninsula with a beautiful little bird figure in a stylised form carved on it. He illustrates various bird-shaped pendants in greenstone and bone.

Fish and Whales

On the comparatively rare occasions where fish appear in carving (such as those featured with the marakihau), the treatment is usually naturalistic. Apart from marakihau designs, fish are found on relatively recent house slabs illustrating such well known legends as the story of Maui. Amulets in the shape of fish have been discovered in various parts of the country. An unusual specimen found at Banks Peninsula is roughly circular, with two fish carved in relief in fine detail, one being decorated with cross-hatched grooves and the other with parallel grooves.

In major woodcarving the most frequent sea creature is the pakake, or whale, which was normally carved on the sloping bargeboards at the front of the large storehouses, or pataka. The whale, in a stylised form, is depicted with its tail at the upper end of the bargeboard. The body occupies the greater part of the board. At the lower end there is an extraordinarily complex head with a spiral mouth, within which is a spiral tongue. A large “V”-shaped tooth is often shown in the mouth, and in some examples a continuous row of small teeth is carved round the inner edge of the mouth. Superimposed on the body of the whale are a series of human figures in the act of hauling a rope, as if pulling the whale ashore. These figures may be full faced or in profile, or a mixture of both. The body of the whale is not shown in some examples, but the spirals composing the head of the whale appear at the lower ends of the bargeboards.

Other Natural Objects

There are in museums a few kumete, or food bowls, formed in the shape of a dog with the back hollowed out. Dogs occasionally appear on house slabs to illustrate a legend, but it is very doubtful if this is a pre-European practice. A beautifully carved ornament in the shape of a dog was found in Monck’s Cave, Sumner, and is figured by Barrow. Modern carvers have, for similar reasons, depicted other creatures, such as crayfish and insects. Leaves and flowers are quite foreign to Maori art and are seldom found even in modern times.

The Spiral

In addition to their many forms used in surface decorations, spirals are an important element in relief carving. Maori spirals are almost always double, though single spirals are occasionally seen carved on stone objects. As the elements in relief carving consist almost entirely of human figures, apart from the spiral, Archey has put forward a theory that the spiral itself has evolved from interlocking manaia, or the interlocking mouths of manaia. It is true that there are numerous examples of openwork spirals which do consist of two interlocked manaia or interlocked manaia mouths, but whether the spiral gave rise to these forms or evolved from them is not known. It is proposed therefore to deal with the spiral as one of the elements of relief carving in its own right.

The openwork spiral is known as pitau or takarangi. Such spirals do not stand alone, but are placed between human figures or between the heads of human figures. The finest spiral designs are those on the bow and stern ornaments of war canoes and on door lintels. Spirals are also used between full-faced figures or manaia on door posts, window frames, and on the lower edges of maihi or bargeboards on the front of carved houses. On war canoes and in some house carvings spaces between the two volutes of a spiral are cut right through the timber producing, in superior work, a lacelike effect. An admirable study of all the various types of spiral, including those used in surface decoration, was published by Phillipps (JPS, Vol. 57, p. 30, et seq). A glance at the various types will show that almost every one starts in the centre with a pointed elliptical space, or with a letters.

Surface Patterns

It is usual for the relief figures to have a surface decoration, although the pre-European carver was a little more restrained than his nineteenth century successor who, with steel tools, was apt to use surface patterns on almost all of the available space. Surface patterns are also used independently of relief work on smaller objects, such as waka huia (feather boxes), kumete (food bowls), weapons, etc., and occasionally on minor pieces of carving in buildings.

Simple Incised Patterns

The simplest form of surface decoration is to be found on objects recovered from Maori sites in Otago. This consists of parallel rows of incised lines, which are arranged in zigzag fashion, in cross hatching, or in parallel groups. This may be an archaic form of decoration, as its rectilinear nature is close to the patterns of some parts of tropical Polynesia, particularly of Niue where identical patterns are used on canoes, adze handles, and flutes. In Otago the flute is the object most commonly decorated in this way.


This is the most common surface pattern. It consists of a row of dog-tooth notches (pakati) on each side of which are parallel grooves (haehae) and ridges (raumoa). In the past 80 or so years it has become standard practice to have three ridges between the rows of pakati, but in older carving, although three was the most usual number, convention was not so rigid and the number varied from one to seven. Old Taranaki carvings show a preference for either one or two ridges. Five ridges are not uncommon in some early Arawa work. Rauponga is one of the patterns very often used to fill in spaces on minor carvings and on boxes and weapons. In the Arawa district various arrangements for rauponga have specific names. A common device in this pattern is to turn the ridges so that they cross the strip of pakati and meet the first ridge on the other side. This is known as whakarare (distortion). When used as a spiral rauponga is called rauru, possibly after Rauru who is sometimes credited with having been the first carver. A pattern somewhat similar to rauponga is found on Tongan and Fijian war clubs.

“Taratara o Kai” or “Taratara a Kai”

The name of this pattern is recorded by Hamilton as taratara o kai. Taratara means “prickly” or “barbed”, and is presumably applied to this pattern from the variant form consisting of a row of pointed triangles. Taratara a kai consists of parallel strips of raised zigzag notching, separated by a ridge or, sometimes, by a plain space. The pattern is practically confined to the Arawa and Matatua tribes of Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty and the Ngati Maru of the Thames area. In these areas the pattern is used on pataka (storehouses) and only rarely on other buildings. It is also present on a palisade post from a pa near Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay.

In the Macmillan Brown lectures of 1954, H. D. Skinner drew attention to the fact that taratara a kai occurs, with very rare exceptions, only in the areas where the whale design is carved on the barge-boards of storehouses. (He considers, with some justification, that certain North Auckland pataka with the whale design were carved by experts from further south.) Skinner relates the taratara pattern with a water symbol found in Asia, Micronesia, and Melanesia, hence its occurrence in connection with the whale in Maori carving. This is a reasonable inference, but at the same time the pattern is fairly widespread in Polynesia on articles with no apparent connection with water. In Rarotonga and Mangaia and the Austral Islands it occurs on deities, in Samoa and Tonga it is found on war clubs, and in Niue it is carved on spears. A spiral form of taratara a kai is called whakairo nui.

“Unaunahi” or “Ritorito”

Unaunahi, or fish scales, is the Arawa name for this pattern, and ritorito, the young shoots of a flax plant, is the Wanganui name. Basically the pattern consists of a fairly wide groove in which are set at intervals groups of three, four, or five curved ridges which run across the groove. The effect is often that of small fleurs-de-lis arranged at intervals across a groove. The fleur-de-lis is the element named unaunahi or ritorito. The treatment varies considerably in different parts of the country. Probably its finest form is to be seen on carving from Gisborne, but it is also used with good effect on some of the beautiful carved trinket boxes from North Auckland. This pattern is often used in spiral form. In this case it is known in Taranaki as pu-werewere, or “spider”, probably because of its resemblance to a spider’s web.


It is said that the name of this pattern arose from a fancied resemblance to the footprint of the pakura, or swamp hen. Pakura consists of a series of spirals connected by a pair of parallel ridges running tangentally from the outer edge of one spiral to the centre of the next spiral. Curved crescent-shaped ridges parallel to the outer edges of the spirals fill up the entire space. The pattern is often combined with unaunahi. It is usually used on the raised borders of window sills and thresholds and on the gunwales of war canoes. Pakura is also used widely as a surface pattern on relief carvings. In North Auckland, where there are usually three connecting ridges between the spirals, it is used with beautiful effect on feather boxes (waka huia).


This interesting pattern occurs not only in carving, but also in tattooing and in painted rafter designs. In the latter it is the predominant element. The koru is a curved “stalk” with a round “bulb” at one end. Apart from the tattoo designs on figures it is found in woodcarving on feather boxes, steering paddles, and other objects. Some of the finest examples are to be seen incised on large gourds for holding preserved pigeons.

Meaning and Symbolism

The statement is commonly made, especially to tourists, that every cut in a piece of Maori carving has a meaning. Indeed, a gifted member of the Arawa tribe obligingly communicated to the well-known journalist, Ettie Rout, every detail of the lore of his ancestors about carving, and the result may be studied in the book Maori Symbolism. The perpetrator of this clever and successful hoax on a too credulous Pakeha must have had many a chuckle in the years that followed. Very little is known of the meaning of carving. Probably much of it was purely decorative. The number of carvers of the nineteenth century who had been taught by pre-European experts makes it highly probable that most of the teachers’ knowledge was passed on to the pupils. It is not a convincing argument that the knowledge was too sacred to be handed on, as much information about equally sacred matters was revealed even to Europeans in the early days of the European settlement. It is a reasonable conclusion, therefore, that either the amount of symbolism in carving has been greatly exaggerated or that it had been lost by the time the Europeans came to New Zealand.

It is important to note that the figures in Maori carving, with very rare exceptions, are not religious, but secular. They do not represent idols, but renowned ancestors of the tribe. The nearest approach to idols were stone figures associated with agriculture and the so-called “stick gods” of which there are a few examples, mainly from the west coast of the North Island, in museums. These consist of a wooden peg about 18 in. long with a carved head on the upper end and the lower end pointed so that it can be stuck into the ground. Occasionally there are two heads, and sometimes the body or part of the body is shown. The tribal god was believed to enter the object when the shaft was bound with cord in a certain way and a fringe of red feathers was bound round the head as a beard. Without the binding the object had no religious significance. The practice of binding or wrapping deities was known in the Cook Islands and in Niue.

Symbolic Carving on Houses

The large carved house was usually named after an important ancestor and, in most parts of the country, was a symbol of that ancestor. The front of a carved house has at the apex of the gable a large carved head with no part of the body visible. This head is known as the koruru or parata. In old houses it is actually carved on the projecting end of the ridgepole (tahuhu), and the body of the figure will be seen on the ridgepole inside the porch of the house. However, the house itself also represents the body of the koruru, who is the ancestor after whom the house is named. The arms of the koruru are the maihi or sloping bargeboards. At the lower ends of the maihi, which project beyond the upright figures (amo) on each side of the front of the house, is an open-work design with three, four, or five ribs running parallel to one another. Usually there is a manaia head between the ribs and the amo. The ribs are fingers, and they and the manaia represent the hands of the ancestor. It is a very common convention to use a manaia head on the hand of a carved figure. The ridgepole of the house represents the ancestor’s backbone, and the rafters (heke) represent his ribs. The inside of the house represents the stomach or bosom (poho). This explains the common practice in the Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay area of naming a house “Te Poho o —”, where the blank is an ancestor’s name, for example, “Te Poho o Kahungunu”, “Te Poho o Rukupo”, etc.

A glance through the illustrations in W. J. Phillipps’s Carved Houses of the Western and Northern Areas of New Zealand will show that the Waikato district is exceptional in that its early houses do not have the hands at the ends of the maihi. Instead, there are open-work spirals similar to those carved on the lower ends of the maihi on smaller storehouses. It appears, therefore, that the Waikato people did not observe the usual symbolic form of the house.

Where the house represented the body of a famous ancestor it would naturally be highly tapu. This would, of course, be most inconvenient to persons entering the house. One way of removing tapu from a man was to have a woman step over him as he lay on the ground. This was the practice when warriors returned from war in a tapu state, the principle being that a woman, having no tapu herself, could neutralise it in a man. The same principle was adopted to protect those entering or leaving a carved house. Over the door a carved slab (pare or korupe) was placed, bearing a design of three principal figures. The central figure, or all three, would be female. Thus a man passing beneath the pare would have the tapu of the house removed from him by the female figures or figure.

Until recent times the carved houses in most districts had no carving inside, apart from the pou toko manawa, the post supporting the ridgepole in the middle of the house. However, on the East Coast and in the Urewera and Arawa districts there were houses with carved figures on all of the poupou or wall slabs inside the building. This has been said to be a post-European practice which started on the East Coast and spread to Rotorua. It is clear, however, that fully carved houses did exist in pre-European times, as such a building in an unfinished state was seen by Cook in Tolaga Bay on his first voyage. Each of the major figures on the poupou was named after an ancestor. Since about 1870 it has been the practice in the Arawa district, and later in other districts, to identify some of the ancestors by illustrating incidents in their lives. For instance, in the great “Tama te Kapua” house at Ohinemutu, Tama te Kapua and his brother, Whakaturia, are shown on stilts to illustrate the incident when they used stilts to rob the fruit off Uenuku’s tree in Hawaiki. It is not clear whether this is an ancient practice. There seems to be no pre-European carving of this type remaining, but that is not to say it did not exist. In most cases there is nothing to identify the ancestor represented. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the figures to be named after the house is finished.

Symbolism in Storehouses

It is common for the bargeboards of a large storehouse to depict a number of men hauling a whale ashore. As pointed out by Phillipps (Maori Houses and Food Stores, 1952, p. 99), the uppermost figure holds the tail of the whale and appears to be presenting it to the chief, represented by the tekoteko, the carved figure at the apex of the building. Why the whale is there nobody knows, but it is a reasonable assumption that the whale, representing a huge single amount of food, would be a most appropriate symbol of plenty to place upon a storehouse. Another feature seen on storehouses is an embracing pair of human figures, one male and one female. Usually the figures have naturalistic heads and are tattooed; but some with grotesque heads are known. Of 10 storehouses with a pair of figures, seven have this feature on the amo, or upright slabs beneath the maihi. The other three have the embracing pair carved above the doorway. Seven of these storehouses are from the Rotorua – Bay of Plenty area and the others are figured in sketches of North Auckland buildings drawn by Augustus Earle in 1827. These northern pataka have the typical designs of the Rotorua – Bay of Plenty area and were probably carved by experts from there. Captain Cruise recorded that when he was in the Bay of Islands in 1820 a pataka was being carved by a man who had been brought all the way from Thames to do this work. The embracing pair are sometimes said to represent the primeval parents of all living things, Rangi and Papa, the sky-father and the earth-mother. It is a reasonable supposition that there is a certain element of fertility symbolised by the figures on storehouses

The Tiki

The term tiki is applied to carved human figures generally, both by the Maori and by other Polynesians. The name possibly has some connection with the myth of Tiki, the first man created by Tane. On the other hand tiki or tikitiki is also a general term for carving in many parts of Polynesia, as, for instance, in Niue, where the Tiki myth is unknown and human figures were not carved. In New Zealand, however, tiki is usually applied to the human figure carved in greenstone as a neck ornament. The full name is hei-tiki. It is commonly supposed that this ornament is a fertility charm representing the human embryo, and that it should be worn only by women. However, as Buck records (The Coming of the Maori, 1949, p. 296), early European visitors saw men wearing the hei-tiki and it is probable that the squat shape of the figure was influenced by the hardness of the material and that it was later likened to an embryo and endowed with magical powers. Buck considered this to be a recent development. The shape is, as Skinner remarks, probably due to the fact that tiki were often made from adze blades.

The Lizard

The symbolic nature of the lizard in carving has already been dealt with.

General Symbolism

It is common for European students to see phallic symbolism in many carved objects. It is true that when the older carvers made a human figure, they carved a man in his complete form without shame or inhibition. This, of course, has nothing to do with phallic worship. The handle of the carved canoe bailer is often interpreted as a phallus, but this is quite doubtful. The same shape was used in the uncarved bailers in most parts of Polynesia, and the handle there is plain and completely functional. The Maori enriched the bailer with carving, and at the end of the handle he carved the inevitable human head, leaving the handle otherwise plain so as not to interfere with its use. The result may look something like a phallus, but this is probably purely coincidental. There is very little evidence of phallic symbolism in carving designs. It is worth repeating that the human figure was the basic design of the Maori carver, and when he was decorating objects, such as feather boxes, he used this basic design and probably had no thought of symbolism. It is interesting to observe that on these lesser objects the human figures are very frequently female. This is possibly because of the lack of tapu associated with women.



The various elements of carving designs have already been discussed. Generally speaking, these elements can be used in these three ways: human figures only, human figures interspersed with manaia, human figures and pitau spirals.

Human Figures Only: In major carvings it is common for one human figure in a vertical position to fill a whole slab. Examples may be seen on the amo (vertical slabs at the front of a house) and the poupou (wall slabs of a house). Sometimes the amo or poupou depict two or more figures, one above the other, and occasionally a full figure stands on the head of another which lacks a body. The papaka or skirting board between each two poupou often has a single human figure with a body in a horizontal position. Series of such figures may also be used in various positions such as the skirting board on the outer side of the front wall.

Human Figures Interspersed with Manaia: Full-faced figures interspersed with profile figures may be used in various ways. The complete figures may be used in a vertical position This is common on the outer threshold and the side walls of large pataka. Again, complete figures may be used in horizontal positions in such places as window frames, skirting boards, and the strakes of a war canoe. Full-faced heads may be flanked by either complete manaia or by manaia heads only. This arrangement may be seen on narrow window sills or in other narrow facing boards.

Human Figures and Pitau Spirals: The open spiral (pitau or takarangi) may be used to separate complete human figures (including manaia) or the heads of such figures. Such designs are used on war canoes and on houses. In the latter case they are found on door lintels, window frames, skirting boards, and the lower edge of the maihi.

The Use of Manaia to Embellish Major Human Figures: In many post-European houses the main slabs are carved with human figures which take up the full width of the slab from top to bottom. This is particularly so in modern Arawa houses. In older examples, however, the head of the figure narrows in quite considerably from the forehead to the mouth. This is usual in the beautiful carvings of the Gisborne district and older work from the Bay of Plenty. The spaces on each side of the head are filled up with manaia. In old Arawa carvings the mouth of the manaia is lengthened to an extraordinary degree, and the long, narrow body of the manaia is superimposed on the body of the main figure. Manaia are also used to fill the spaces below the elbows of the main figure, and the space between the legs. It is not uncommon for the forearms, hands, or feet of a main figure to be carved as manaia.

Painted Designs

Painted designs were used by the Maori on the rafters, doors, and windows of buildings, on the under surface of the bows of war canoes, and on cenotaphs. Designs were also painted on the walls of caves and rock shelters, particularly in the South Island.

Wood Design

The designs on buildings, canoes, and cenotaphs are called kowhaiwhai. The colours used are red, black, and white, the latter being the natural colour of the wood in pre-European times, but white paint is now used. The black paint was formerly made from soot, and the red from red ochre (kokowai) mixed with shark oil. The Ngati Porou tribe are said to have also used a bluish paint made of a clay called tutae-whetu. The basic elements of kowhaiwhai design are the koru and the double spiral. The koru consists of a curved stalk with an almost circular bulb on one end. In some East Coast designs there is a type of koru with a “bulb” at each end, and other circular “bulbs” equally spaced along the inner side of the curve between the terminal “bulbs”. The leading elements of the design are almost invariably white, the remaining space being blocked in, or stippled, in red or black. Where red and black are both used in the one design they normally alternate. The various designs have fanciful names, such as mangopare (hammer-headed shark), kowhai-ngutu-kaka (flower of the kaka beak), ngutukura (red beak, or red lips), and so on. Kowhaiwhai design reached its most developed form in the Gisborne district. There are many fine examples from this area in the Dominion Museum in Wellington. An admirable study of painted designs has been made by W. J. Phillipps in Maori Rafter and Taniko Designs, 1960.

Rock Designs

Although kowhaiwhai patterns occur in cave paintings, it is more usual to find pictures of birds, fish, reptiles, canoes, and many other designs, some of them very difficult to interpret. A particularly lively reptilian design appears on the roof of Ley’s cave, Opihi, South Canterbury. One of these figures is reproduced on the 2s. postage stamp in the pictorial issue of 1960. Unlike the designs in carving, many of the cave paintings are treated in a naturalistic manner.


It is now many years since the death of the last man tattooed in the ancient Maori manner, but women with tattooed chins may still be seen in many districts. Maori tattoo was called moko. It differed from other Polynesian tattoo in that the lines of the patterns were actually cut into the flesh instead of being merely pricked in. We are concerned here, however, with the designs, rather than the other aspects of the craft. Although the practice may be repulsive to some people, an objective student is impressed with the fact that Maori tattoo designs were truly a form of art in the way the various lines were applied to that somewhat difficult subject, the human face.

From illustrations dating from Cook’s time it is apparent that the facial tattoo designs had become fixed only by the early nineteenth century. A portrait by Sydney Parkinson, a careful artist, shows a style that was unknown a generation or two later. On a background of stippled parallel lines running vertically from the jaw to the cheek-bone there was a simple design of connected koru, much like the designs used in rafter painting. This type of pattern was called puhoro, and was usually used on the thighs.

The classical tattoo designs which were in vogue at the time of European settlement have been studied in detail by Robley in his monumental work Moko. The principal elements on a man’s face were the pu-kauwae, spiral designs on the chin; the rerepehi, a series of parallel curved lines from the chin to the side of the nose; the paepae, two large multiple spirals on the cheek; rerepi and pongiangia, spirals on the nose; and tiwhana, a series of rays curving from the inner end of the eyebrow, above the brows, and sweeping downwards above the ear. A fully tattooed man also had a puhoro type of pattern, called ipurangi, on the upper part of the forehead, a small motif, called titi, on the lower part of the forehead, and a puhoro design, called pu-taringa, between the ear and the spirals on the cheek. Men frequently had large spirals (rape) tattooed on the buttocks and puhoro designs on the thighs. Occasionally other parts of the body, such as the chest and the backs of the hands, were tattooed. Women were usually tattooed only on the lips and the chin, though sometimes a small mark was incised on the forehead. Some women were also tattooed on the waist and the thighs, but this was not particularly common.

The pigment used was soot obtained from burning kahikatea, or white pine, sometimes mixed with kauri gum or soot from the oily koromiko (hebe) shrub. The tattooing chisel (uhi) was usually made from the wing bone of the albatross, or from human bone. It was mounted in a haft somewhat in the fashion of an adze, and was struck with a light mallet. The edge of the uhi was serrated.

Various types of carved head showing corresponding manaia

Various types of carved head showing corresponding manaia

Examples of marakihau, showing degeneration of design

Examples of marakihau, showing degeneration of design

Replication of a Maori Ethnographic Textile Hem Border Pattern

Replication of archaeological and ethnographic Māori textiles, under the direction of customary knowledge and previous practical experience, can provide a more nuanced understanding of the manufacture of taonga (treasures) made from fibre materials. A case study is presented here from the unique perspective of a weaver who is also an archaeologist, and familiar with the essential components of replication work. This paper introduces tāniko, a Māori weft-twining technique, and the replication of a unique tāniko pattern on the hem border of an ethnographic kākahu (cloak), known as ‘the Stockholm cloak’. The project follows experimental archaeology standards and customary Māori practices and protocols for all processes and steps involved. A variation of the known tāniko technique was identified, alongside an appreciation of the enormous skill involved not only in the weaving technique but in the fibre preparation and processing. Further, a renewed awareness was acquired for the importance of skilled mentors willing to share their fibre working expertise. This type of study provides empirical data to the archaeological discipline, while supporting, and contributing to, the continuity of customary knowledge systems.

Experimental and replicative archaeology, used in conjunction with customary knowledge and previous practical experience, is a valuable research tool for archaeologists. Researchers of Māori material culture have long been fascinated by kākahu since they were first observed by early explorers to Aotearoa New Zealand and collected for European Museums, where many remain. These are rarely seen or researched, and more recently, past information gathered by ethnographers is being critiqued. The reliability of this information has been called into question due to the sometimes-unreliable informants, the lack of comprehensive textile knowledge, and the agenda of European publishers (Wallace, 2002). They do, however, provide important contextual information that contributes to the overall understanding of the general activities of early Māori and their fibre working practices.

I approach this topic from a different angle than most archaeologists as I am first and foremost a practitioner of customary Māori weaving; including mahi raranga – weaving bags, baskets, belts and mats from flat-leaf strips; mahi whatu – a finger weft twining technique used for eel nets and cloaks; and the plaiting, plying and knotting of fibres for cordage and fishing nets. As a Pākehā I was privileged to learn on the East Coast of Aotearoa, New Zealand in the small Māori community of Tokomaru Bay, where making objects from fibre was simply part of everyday life. From 2011 my learning continued with stone tool and fibre specialist Dante Bonica at The University of Auckland. The knowledge passed on to me included; which plant, when and how to harvest, the different preparation and processing methods, and various weaving techniques. This illustrates the continuity of Māori fibre-working practices in Aotearoa, however, due to the destructive processes of colonisation, there are gaps in this knowledge system. This research provides technical knowledge, and a way of giving back to communities who have shared their expertise.

In Māori ideology, taonga contain a spiritual power derived from their ancestors, from the mauri (essence) of the raw material and from the energy of the artist who made them (Te Kanawa, 2008). Māori arrived with an existing sophisticated fibre working technology which they modified in response to new materials, to the environment, and to their cultural needs (Smith, 2015). In the past weavers were initiated into Te Whare Pora, a house especially set aside for teaching the art of weaving and in it “were performed the ceremonies connected with the installation and teaching of the tauira or students” (Best, 1934, p. 628). The initiate would now have her tupuna (ancestor) guiding her during her weaving projects and enabling her to accomplish new patterns with ease.

The Stockholm cloak, mantel 1848.01.64 (See Figure 1) was collected during Captain James Cook’s first visit to Aotearoa in 1769-1770 and is held as part of the Joseph Banks Collection in the Ethnographical Museum of Sweden. The kaupapa (body of the cloak) is woven from muka (also known as whitau) which is the inner fibre of the harakeke leaf (Phormium tenax), in a compact weave with aho poka (inserted short rows for shaping). There is debate as to whether this weave is aho pātahi (single-pair twining) (Mead, 1969), aho rua (double-pair twining) (Porter, 1977) or counter-pair twining (Blackman, 1998). The excellent photographs taken by Blackman, and those provided online by the Stockholm Museum suggest to me the technique may be counter-pair twining, that is, alternating rows of Z and S twist. There are remnants of widely spaced dogskin and feather tassels attachments, and a wide hem tāniko border with a unique, complex linear design (Mead, 1969) (See Figure 2).

Tāniko is a finger weft-twining technique using soft cords, developed by Māori to create intricately patterned hem borders on the expertly woven and highly prestigious kākahu, such as the Kaitaka, Paepaeroa, and Huaki. Tāniko styles have undergone many developments since the arrival of Cook but remain “the pinnacle of creative genius in textile weaving, unique to NZ” (Pendergrast, 1987, p. 14). Tāniko patterns in ethnographical collections in Aotearoa are, largely bold geometric designs with two narrow borders and one wide hem border. There are rare examples of fine linear patterns on very wide hem borders of kākahu in international museums, including the Stockholm cloak, which demonstrate pre-contact tāniko styles. Further, as this cloak was collected during the first visit, there may be no external influences on this type of tāniko pattern.

Tāniko has a similar structure to wrapped twining, commonly used with strips of plant material for basketry or net making (see Adovasio, 2010, p. 19; Fig.11a for a schematic of wrapped twining, and Buck, 1925, pp. 61-92 for the development of tāniko). The active weft element twists up over the front of the warp thread and around the passive threads at the back, then through to the front again (See Figure 3). The thread may be twisted in a clockwise, S-twist direction or in an anti-clockwise, Z-twist direction (Blackman, 1998). In addition, a two-ply Z-twist undyed muka thread is carried behind the warp as a passive element to stiffen the fabric and to prevent kinking by pulling to keep the tension even and tight. An expert creates a fabric where all passive threads are covered by the active weft (Buck, 1926). The patterns are made using five components

  • shifting the weft threads from full and half twists
  • changing the two or more coloured weft threads from active to passive within a single row
  • having a passive weft thread
  • using a S twist for the aho
  • having the same pattern but different structure on the front and back surfaces, with the front a diagonal stitch, and the back vertical.

There are other tāniko variations evident on 18th Century cloaks, such as paired warps, fine-line, and reverse face with black threads (Blackman, 1998). However, these are also found on kākahu held in museums throughout Aotearoa, though small in number.


Customary Māori protocols were adhered to for the harvest, preparation and processing of the fibres, and during the weaving process. This was under the guidance of knowledge holder Dante Bonica, with all processes, apart from harvesting the material, conducted at his workshop. There are many elements required for this project, from the fibre materials, the tools for harvesting and preparing the fibres, natural dyes, and the weaving method.


The centrality of harakeke is reflected in the kawa and tikanga (Māori protocols) of the planting, harvesting, preparing and processing harakeke, and in the weaving systems. There are strict kawa for harvesting harakeke which keep the plant and weaver safe; the central shoots of the harakeke represent the whanau (family) and must not be cut. These are referred to as the rito (growth) and awhi rito (to help grow), or the pepe (baby) and mātua (parents). In addition, harakeke must be cut during the day; it cannot be cut if it is raining or the weaver is menstruating. The leaves were cut with a mākoi (mussel shell, Perna canaliculus) which had been sharpened against a hoanga (grindstone, sandstone). The mākoi proved effective though it needed re-sharpening after cutting ten leaves. As “the finished product is dependent on the preparation of materials” (Te Kanawa, 2008, p. 147), great care is taken during the next stage.

The blades were prepared by removing the thin outer edge and thick middle rib, leaving a wide single strip on each side. Each is again split into 2-3 strips depending on the width of the leaf, to be approximately 10 mm wide. The matā tūhua (obsidian, a sharp volcanic glass-like substance) was used to cut across the back of the leaf strip on the lower leaf surface, taking care to only cut through this layer and not to cut the strip in half (See Figure 4). The strip is then turned over so that the cut side faces down. The mākoi, specifically chosen to fit comfortably in my hand (and being righthanded, a right-side shell) is used to scrape down the upper surface layer to release the para (epidermis). Then pressure is applied with the mākoi on the cut while pulling the strip away from the shell which releases the lower surface, exposing the inner fibre (See Figure 5). The fingernail is used to gently scrape any remaining para off that may be stuck to the muka.

Cord Manufacture

The technique of miro is hand plying strands of muka into a thread along the leg. It is important to keep an even pressure, and to choose good strong fibres, to consistently manufacture standard size threads. The miro technique its best done on the natural skin of your leg and the muka needs to be moist, either from immersing in water or the preferred way of using saliva. Rolling the two threads separately down the leg (s twist) until they meet, then release the cord and it will twist in a Z direction. The aho (weft) strands need to be slightly thicker in tāniko weaving than the whenu (warp) (Te Kanawa, 1992, p. 18). Finally, the threads are twisted together in hanks of fifty plied threads, a whiri whenu, with the weft threads set aside for dying and the warp threads for further processing.

Natural Dyes

The aho were dyed red/brown with the bark from the tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) tree. One handful of crushed bark was placed into 500 litres of boiling water and left for at one hour before the muka cords were added for 30 mins. In the past the bark was boiled in a kumete (wooden bowl) with heated stones used to boil the water. One cup of wood ash was mixed to a paste with warm water and the cords immersed for 20 minutes until the colour fixed (See Figure 6). The type of ash used affects the colour, with tōtara my favourite as the aho turn a deep red-brown, however, a mix of wood ash was used for this project.


Now the fibres are ready for weaving the tāniko pattern of the Stockholm cloak was drafted onto grid paper from a photo in the book Ka Tahi (Pendergrast, 2005, colour Fig. 6). Yet in the past weavers only had “their eyes for balance and their fingers for measurements” (Te Kanawa, 1992, p. 38) and produced fine, delicate and intricate tāniko of unsurpassed quality. The rituals surrounding the weaving process include only weaving during the day, no smoking or eating while weaving, no stepping over the object being made and you must complete the aho tapu (the sacred first pattern row) in one sitting. Following these guidelines provides a harmony between the weaver and the mauri of the piece, which will ensure a successful outcome.

Aho rua (double-pair twining) is the customary technique to set up the warp threads, and a selvedge edge was created by folding each thread in half, twining, adding in another thread and folding the first back into the next stitch, and repeat for the desired width. The initial Tauira Tāniko 1 has 2.5 mm whenu and 3 mm aho, and Tauira Tāniko 2 has 1 mm whenu and 1.5 mm aho. The first row of weaving, te aho tapu, is important to get correct as it is from here the rest of the pattern flows (Te Kanawa, 1992). One brown and one white thread were used in the first attempt, with an undyed passive aho. Very quickly on this first row, I realised that to achieve the opposing diagonal lines, I would need to change my technique of solely using a Z twist and use both the Z and S twist within a single row. This counter-pair twining within a row is rare, presently only confirmed on five 18th Century cloaks held in overseas museums (Blackman, 1998, p. 79). This gave the correct appearance on the front; however, the pattern was uneven with poor tension, partly due to the wide threads, and partly inexperience of the weaver. In addition, and more importantly, the back was very different from the Stockholm structure. Therefore, the Tauira Tāniko 2 was woven in the same technique, with a brown and a white thread, but without a passive aho. Finally, the back reflected the Stockholm tāniko border.

In comparison to customary tāniko the Stockholm uses two different coloured aho, they are twisted in an S or Z direction where the pattern requires and carried as a passive weft when a wider band of one colour is needed. This passive weft can be pulled firmly to keep the correct tension on the textile. This is an important link to the separate passive weft that is carried in all customary tāniko designs, indicating a relationship between the two techniques. A visual representation can be seen in this Tauira Tāniko 3, which illustrates three different tāniko structures using two colours (See Figures 9 and 10). The upper section is the Stockholm pattern, with a linear front design and diagonal stitches, and curvy lines on the back with vertical and diagonal stitches. The middle section is post-contact tāniko, with the same design and diagonal stitch on the front and the back. Finally, the lower section is the aronui (triangles) pattern in customary tāniko, with the same design on the front and back but different stitch directions. This last pattern is a good example of the consequence of making uneven threads, where the passive wefts are not covered by the active weft as they are the incorrect size. This confirms Blackman’s (1998, p. 79) observations “that warp count and balance of dimensions of warp and weft threads are critical to achieving effective designs with these structures”.

The replication process was informative in understanding how this distinct tāniko method is manufactured, and the collaboration with customary knowledge holders and the prior tāniko experience of the author proved crucial to the process. A key learning for future replications was the use of the Z and S twist within a single row, which requires a change when drafting the pattern onto grid paper. For customary tāniko, a simple ‘x’ in a square mark out the pattern as with cross-stitch, however, when it is a Z and S twist pattern, it is vital to use ‘/’ and ‘\’ to indicate twist direction. Having woven multiple samples, with many mistakes, my respect for the skill of the weavers is limitless and leaves me in awe of their abilities. A new appreciation was gained of the importance of material preparation and processing to the outcome. As Te Kanawa (2008, p. 139) observed “producing aesthetically exquisite pieces of work all came down to exact measurements, tightness in tension, colour tones, understanding the patterns the techniques and to precision of weaving”. Experimental archaeology not only provides a way to empirically measure customary and ethnographic knowledge but also provides archaeologists with a more nuanced understanding of objects made from fibre while contributing to known customary weaving practices.

Written by –

Ralui Valui