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.