Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 4. Carving, 1500 to 1800

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This was a period of great inventiveness during which the curved patterns and spirals that have become synonymous with Māori art emerged as a response to the flora of New Zealand. Stylised bird forms were employed to depict the human figure.

European admiration

During this period Europeans first encountered Māori culture. Joseph Banks, a botanist on English explorer James Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, observed elaborately carved canoes at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). He wrote, ‘for the beauty of their carving in general I fain would say something more about it but find myself inferior to the task’.1

Pātaka and waka taua

The mana of a tribe was invested in the carving of elaborate pātaka (elevated food stores), which denoted wealth and hospitality, and in large waka taua (carved canoes), which expressed the tribe’s prestige outside its own boundaries.

Whale decorations

The taratara ā kae surface design, a common carved pattern on pātaka, portrays the story of Tinirau and Kae, who argued over killing and eating Tutunui, a pet whale. Māori did not then have the technology to hunt whales, but a stranded whale provided a community with abundant food and bone for tools and ornaments. Storehouses made visual reference to generous food supplies to demonstrate wealth of resources and hospitality.

Examples of pātaka

A famous example from this period is now known as the Te Kaha pātaka. The maihi (bargeboards) and kūwaha (doorway) survive from a pātaka that once stood at Maraenui, beside the Mōtū River in Bay of Plenty. Each maihi shows the hauling of a whale by alternate human and manaia (beaked) figures, superbly embellished with the taowaru style (where figures stand one above the other) of the taratara ā kae surface pattern, which depicts whales. The layering of the figures and the abstract patterning create an extraordinary sense of depth in the relief.

‘Serpentine’ style

During this period, two classical regional styles of carving emerged, with many local variations. The first, known as the ‘serpentine’ (tuare) style, is associated with the Hokianga, Hauraki, East Cape and Taranaki, and is exemplified by Ngāti Whātua carvings. In this style figures have cone-like heads and long, sinuous, often S-shaped, bodies. The tubular bodies are usually uncarved, but if surface decoration is applied the unaunahi (fish-scales) pattern is the most common, especially in the north. Variations of this pattern called ritorito (unaunahi arranged in clusters like a plant) or pungawerewere (unaunahi arranged in a spiral) are also seen.

Unaunahi is most prevalent in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), and ritorito in carving by Te Āti Awa of Taranaki. Te Āti Awa examples are distinctive for the depth of modelling created by the figures’ intertwining limbs, and also for the unique shape of their foreheads, peaked in homage to the mountain Taranaki.

Style of the times

Most surviving examples of the ‘eastern square style’ of carving date from the period of European contact and were carved with steel rather than stone tools. This has led some scholars to conclude that the style is more recent than the serpentine style. However, examples were recorded as early as 1769, when Cook’s Endeavour visited Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). Drawings of the carvings collected on that voyage not only show clear evidence of the ‘serpentine’ style, but also the haehae (raised lines) and pākati (notch) surface patterning that characterise the ‘square style’.

‘Eastern square style’

The other major regional style is the ‘eastern square style’ from the Bay of Islands, Thames, East Coast, Rotorua, the south of Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island) and Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island).This style is so-named because of the broad, squat nature of the body types, with the head usually about a third of the entire composition.

Large carved houses

Some of Cook’s crew observed the unfinished frame of a large house, about 10 metres long, in the process of being carved. As there is no evidence of large, fully carved houses elsewhere in New Zealand at this time, this carving tradition may have started on the East Coast, possibly under the influence of the Rāwheoro school, and spread from Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) to the rest of the North Island. It is believed that the fully carved meeting house was introduced to the Te Arawa tribes when the East Coast tribe of Ngāti Awa offered them one as a wedding gift. By the 1830s and 1840s there were many such large carved houses.

  1. Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 281. Back
How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - Carving, 1500 to 1800', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014