Story: Kōhatu – Māori use of stone

Page 2. Ornaments and weapons

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The early settlers from East Polynesia brought pendants, necklaces, and other ornaments, and for several hundred years Māori continued to make and wear items in similar styles. Ornaments from some early Māori archaeological sites are identical to those found in East Polynesian sites of the same age. As fashions changed, new styles of pendants, particularly those made from pounamu (New Zealand jade), became popular.

Reels and pendants

Typical early Māori stone ornaments were reels and pendants. Reels were usually made of serpentine, a relatively soft metamorphic rock obtained mainly from the Nelson region. It ranges in colour from dark brown to green, and is easily carved. Serpentine reels, which were probably strung to form necklaces, have been found (often singly) in early sites in both islands, sometimes with human burials.

Pendants shaped like whale teeth, and decorated discs were also made from serpentine. One remarkable whale tooth pendant from Southland is over 20 centimetres long and weighs almost 2 kilograms, but most were much smaller and possibly worn as part of a necklace. Disc pendants, worn on the chest, are extremely rare and have been found only in the South Island. These were decorated with notches around the rim, and one spectacular example has two fish shapes carved on the front.


Pounamu ornaments appear to be a later development, perhaps after 1500 AD. The main items were hei tiki (neck pendants) and ear pendants, both of which were widely worn in the early years after the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. Small pounamu adzes and chisels were sometimes made into pendants by drilling a hole at one end for a cord.

More than a stone’s throw

The high-quality obsidian (volcanic glass) found on Tūhua (Mayor Island) was widely traded. It has been found in many archaeological sites on New Zealand’s mainland, in the Kermadecs and on Chatham Island. The West Coast’s pounamu was also exchanged throughout the North and South islands.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, patu (short hand clubs) were typical Māori stone weapons. Patu ōnewa were commonly made from greywacke, various volcanic rock types – including pumice – and from nephrite (mere pounamu). These appear to have been used mainly in the north, and are well represented among artefact collections from Ōruarangi on the Hauraki Plains. In the South Island, patu may have been used for killing seals and moa.

Cutting pounamu

Pounamu (nephrite) artefacts were usually made by cutting and grinding the stone. Boulders or slabs were cut using pieces of hard sandstone, greywacke or schist as saws. Deep grooves were sawn on each side of the rock, which was then snapped along them. Quartz sand was used as an abrasive to shape and smooth the stone.

How to cite this page:

Phil Moore and Bruce McFadgen, 'Kōhatu – Māori use of stone - Ornaments and weapons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Phil Moore and Bruce McFadgen, published 12 Jun 2006