When the ancestors of the Māori first arrived in New Zealand from East Polynesia, around 1250 to 1300 AD, they found a wide variety of rock types suitable for making tools, ornaments and other items. They were familiar with some materials like basalt and chert (or flint) but not with others, such as pounamu (New Zealand jade, greenstone – nephrite or bowenite). Within perhaps 50–100 years the main sources of suitable stone were known, and several major centres of stone-tool manufacture were established. In the 1300s, Māori were transporting both finished tools and selected raw materials around the country.
The most important tools were adzes (toki) and chisels (whao). Stone adze heads were lashed to a wooden handle and used in working wood, including canoe building. Chisels were primarily used for finer carving.
Initially, many types of adzes were made, in styles similar to those found on eastern Pacific islands. The early adzes had a well-defined butt or grip for lashing to a handle. The majority were made from basalt or other hard rock, notably:
Later adze styles were more restricted. In the North Island, the main type was a relatively simple form without a defined butt, generally made from greywacke or basalt, but in some cases from nephrite, argillite, and gabbro (a coarse-grained plutonic rock). Similar adzes in the South Island were more commonly made from nephrite.
Adzite and nephrite are found only in the South Island, yet adzes made from these materials have been found throughout New Zealand, indicating extensive trade.
Making a stone adze was a skilled job. Boulders or blocks were broken up using other boulders. Selected pieces were then worked into the desired shape (termed a roughout) by striking flakes off the edges with hammer stones, which were also used to smooth rough surfaces by ‘pecking’ or ‘bruising’. The final step was to polish the adze and sharpen the cutting edge by rubbing it back and forth on a wet grinding stone (hōanga) – a time-consuming task.
Te Whatahoro Jury recalled that in one method to detach pieces of stone from a boulder or outcrop, a fire was kindled nearby. When the stone was red hot, the fire was removed and water thrown on the rock. This caused the surface to break up, so that it was easier to split into manageable pieces – to use for grinding stones or to make adzes.
The tools most commonly used for cutting and scraping were sharp flakes of obsidian (matā – volcanic glass) and chert. Obsidian is found almost exclusively in the northern half of the North Island, with the largest deposits on Mayor Island (Tūhua). Obsidian from this source was traded throughout the country.
Chert was widely exploited in both main islands, and in Otago silcrete (hard quartz sandstone) and porcelanite (baked clay) were used, the former extensively on sites of moa hunters. Other flake tools were made from basalt and greywacke. In Taranaki, large ‘choppers’ are relatively common, and may have been used for slaughtering seals.
Drill points were used to make holes in both wood and stone, and, during the early period, for making one-piece bone fish hooks. They were made from various materials, particularly chert, but also obsidian and some of the same rock types used for adzes.
Making a fish hook involved drilling out the central part of a flat, rectangular piece of bone (usually moa), then shaping it with stone files. The files were usually sandstone, or in some cases schist or petrified wood. Larger slabs of sandstone (hōanga) were used like modern whetstones, for polishing and sharpening adzes.
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.
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.
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 pā on the Hauraki Plains. In the South Island, patu may have been used for killing seals and moa.
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.
Fishing was an important activity in Māori life, as shown by the numerous fish hooks of bone and shell found in some archaeological sites. Stone trolling lures (also called minnow lures), with bone or shell points attached, were used to catch fish such as kahawai and barracouta. They were commonly made from argillite, schist or greywacke, but also from other materials, including limestone and serpentine. Stone sinkers were made by forming a shallow groove around a pebble or cobble and winding a line around it. Large stones were occasionally used as anchors, and pumice as floats for fishing nets.
Māori used stone extensively for gardening. They added sand and gravel to garden soils, to make them friable, retain moisture, and improve their heat retention – critical for subtropical plants growing in New Zealand’s temperate climate. Called plaggen soils, these are most extensive along the Waikato and Waipā rivers. Here, sand and gravel dug out of old river terraces were placed in hollows in the topsoil up to 30 centimetres deep, and the excavated topsoil placed on top, forming a mound.
Cobbles and rough stones were used to make low, elongated rows 1–2 metres wide and up to tens of metres long. These were usually in groups, called stone row systems, and were laid out more or less parallel, often in association with circular stone mounds 1–2 metres in diameter.
Some stone rows appear to mark garden plot boundaries. Other stones were dug from nearby underground deposits (leaving well-defined borrow pits), or brought from streams or river beds and put into purpose-built shallow trenches. The excavated soil was then replaced over the stones. Like the plaggen soils, the stones improved heat retention and warmed the soil above them, and the rows themselves were probably gardened.
One valuable plant was flax, which was prepared for use as a fibre by beating it with stone pounders (patu muka). These pounders were often made from greywacke or volcanic rock.
Rounded stones were widely used in cooking, particularly in earth ovens (hāngī or umu). Hāngī stones were often carefully selected because certain rocks explode violently when heated in a fire. Good stones would sometimes be presented as a gift to other tribes. Volcanic rocks were the most suitable, while greywacke was also used. At Ruarangi in Northland, they were considered so well-suited for the task that they were described as ‘stones crying for food’ (ngā kōwhatu tangi kai o Ruarangi).
Stones were also used to boil water. They were heated in a fire, then put into the vessel containing water.
Water-smoothed cobbles (autoru) were used for crushing kōkōwai, a naturally occurring red or yellow iron oxide. The powder was used in body painting and on carvings, and stored in pumice pots. Red kōkōwai or ochre is still used on carvings.
For entertainment, children and adults used spinning or whipping tops, generally made from pumice but also greywacke, volcanic rock, and wood. They were spun with a flax whip. Some nose flutes (nguru), particularly those found at Ōruarangi on the Hauraki Plains, were also made from stone, including sandstone, pumice, and hard volcanic ash.
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Best, Elsdon. The stone implements of the Māori. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1912).
Davidson, Janet. The prehistory of New Zealand. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1987.
McKinnon, Malcolm, ed. Bateman New Zealand historical atlas. Auckland: David Bateman, 1997.
Prickett, Nigel. Ngā tohu tawhito – early Māori ornaments. Auckland: David Bateman, 1999.
Wilson, John, ed. From the beginning: the archaeology of the Māori. Auckland: Penguin, 1987.