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No. 14 (April 1956)
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Gilbert Archey
Auckland War Memorial Museum.

The KAITAIA CARVING — is it Maori?

This unusual carving was discovered in 1921 deep in a swamp between Kaitaia and Ahipara. It appeared at first sight so different from Maori work that ethnologists began to search far and wide over the Pacific and beyond to discover where the idea of it might have come from.

I say the idea, not the carving itself, because we know it is made of New Zealand tetara; never-theless even in its idea, or at least in its main outline if not in its unusual details, it is essentially Maori.

For example its main features are a central figure, from which the upper margin curves on either side to end in a manaia at either end, and this is the standard arrangement in many pare. But between these figures are long slender chevrons. Are such chevrons found elsewhere in Maori art? And can we call the figures at either end manaia?

As for the manaia, we need only look at a number of Maori carvings such as lintels and canoe-carvings to discover how many varieties of curious figures the Maori carver made of it. As you see some are tall, others short, stout or thin, standing upright or lying sideways; so we should have no difficulty in recognizing these Kaitaia end-figures as just further examples of the curious creatures the tohunga created to fit into his patterns. The different shapes of these

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figures are not different kinds of creatures; they are just art forms of the figure altered or modified to help to make the design the artist had in his mind.

So we do not need to look to distant lands abroad or to times long past to discover where these strange creatures came from; instead we can see them for what they are, design forms created by the Maori artist here in New Zealand out of a natural form, in the same way that mediaeval artists made curious heraldic beasts to adora their armour.

Similarly with the chevrons; they also are a natural form made into a decorative design. The Kaitaia carving is not the only carving with chevrons; they were used in pendants of ivory and bone. When one of these was discovered twenty-five years ago showing them unmistakably as limbs, the limb-nature of the other pendant-chevrons and of the Kaitaia carving was revealed.

So the Kaitaia carving can be looked on as a kind of heraldic shield with a central figure and two manaia supporters, and in between them the finely drawn-out chevron design. This is how we can understand the pattern or composition; what we do not yet know is who the man and the manaia were intended to be; or who the chevrons stand for. There is a story here, as on a shield or banner; some day we may discover what it is.