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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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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 letter S.

Next Part: Surface Patterns