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No. 23 (July 1958)
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THE ORIGIN OF
MAORI CARVING

This essay was written about the time of the building of the Waltara Meeting House (1936). In the first instalment which appeared in Issue 22, Sir Apirana assumed two basic styles of Maori carving, one of them typical of the Arawa and East Coast tribes, and the other typical of Northland and Taranaki. He set out to prove that these two styles have a common ancestor [ unclear: ] and believed that the Ngati Awa, living between Whakatane and Opotiki in the 14th-15th century, made carvings which were later copied by Maori artists all over the country.

Maori tradition reveals that the pre-European Northern and Western carving had a ngati Awa origin and that the Arawa carving style can be traced to Ngati Awa. East Coast carving is also shown, in an interesting ancient chant, to come from the Bay of Plenty. However, great differences existed between the style borrowed by the Northern and Western tribes around 1500, and the known Ngati Awa style of the 18th century, which influenced the Eastern carvers.

All Maori Carving is of Ngati-Awa origin

We now come to the earlier Ngati-Awa work which we say was distributed over the North Hauraki and Taranaki. In Percy Smith's story of the Peopling of the North (printed as a supplement to Vol, VI of the Journal of Polynesian Society) the period of the Ngati Awa occupation of the North was shown to have occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Ngati Awa were forced southwards to Tauranga and Taranaki. The northern traditions speak of a Ngati-Kahu section, which occupied the Mangonui district, and connects it with Ngati-Kahungunu. There appears to be a conflict between these and the East Coast traditions which bring Tamatea and his sons from overseas in Takitimu. The latter agree, however, that Kahungunu—the Kahungunu who established himself in the Gisborne-Mahia area—at one time resided near Tauranga where he quarrelled with Whaene and whence he migrated to the East Coast.

If traditions conflict or are obscure the extant evidence of Ngati Awa culture is eloquent enough,

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Carving found in river silt near Opotiki. (Photo from Phillipps, Maori Carving Illustrated)

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Above: One of the Te Kaha carvings reputed to be the best Maori work in existence, now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Photo Peter Blanc.)

This points to two schools of carving so ably distinguished by Dr Archey. In opposition to the theory of diffusion from the Western Pacific of Melanesian sources Dr Archey stressed local development of both schools and this I believe to be correct.

However, the work of the two schools as they are known to us, was produced at different stages in their development, the eastern carvings being more recent than the North-western ones. This made me wonder whether the comparison was a fair one; and whether features which may really be of a later stage in the evolution of East Coast-Bay of Plenty technique and designs have not over-shadowed other features of the carvings of that area, which establish a close relationship to those of the Northern area and suggest that there was a time when much of the Northern work was typical of the other area. The Ngati-Awa School—if we may attribute the North Auckland. Hauraki, Taranaki carvings to that people—ceased developmnt in the Stone Age period in the North and Hauraki, possibly in Taranaki also—leaving its monuments in caves and swamps. The students disposed to look for a diffusion from some centre will not overlook the Bay of Plenty origin of Ngati-Awa and will attach great value to the early inhabitants of that district. And if a tribe of the Toi Blood, closely connected with the Bay of Plenty is also found in the 14th–15th, centuries, in full possession of the same art a presumption is permissible of one origin. Confirmation that a branch of this carving tradition was taken north comes from Percy Smith “The Peopling of the North”. Speaking of Rauru, son of Toi, he quotes supporting East Coast traditions regarding the same ancestor:

“Ko te tipuna o te uri mohio ki te whakairo, o Ngati-Kahungunu”—

This is the ancestor of the tribes learned in carving of Ngati-Kahungunu.

The latter tribal name was as often applied to the East Coast-Poverty Bay people as the name Ngati Porou—that branch did not develop much further in the north because the Ngati Awa were driven out. The specimens found in the Taranaki district show little if any elaboration on those from Helensville and are probably unaffected by European tools.

Early East Coast Carving resembled Northern in many ways

It would be interesting to compare this Northern work with Bay of Plenty and East Coast specimens of the pre-European period and to see how much of the characteristics of the former may be found in the work of the East Coast School even of post-European times.

To answer such questions we must first discover the limitations imposed by stone implements as evidenced by undoubted pre-steel carving and then consider the opportunities provided by steel tools for the elaboration and development of tendencies present in old time carving.

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An inspection I made recently of Auckland Museum specimens suggested that the chevron pakati is less conspicuous in the Northern and Te Kaha carvings than in the Rotorua and East Coast carvings; that the half-moon details are more favoured in these old carvings; that the pitau spirals, the spirals decorating the shoulders and knees go with the chevron pakati in Rotorua and East Coast work of later date. My suggestion is that this great burst of ornamentation came after steel tools were introduced and when the art, which had died out in the North in the Age of Stone implements, had its scope only in the Bay of Plenty-East Coast area.

I suggest a closer examination of carvings, old time and late in this area for features characteristic of the work of the Northern school which have lingered in the former. The Turanga House in the Dominion Museum, carved it is said circa 1842 by that great expert Raharuhi Rukupo and members of his hapu is well worth intensive study for evidence of these features, I find there:—

(a)

The peculiar head occurring on Northland lintels.

(b)

The Turanga house has interlocked spirals such as are found on lintels from Northland and Hauraki.

(c)

The Northern type of claw-like fingers are seen on many of the Turanga slabs although not on the epa.

(d)

Turanga has the ornamentation on epa figures and portion of side-wall slabs so common on the Northern burial chests.

(e)

Turanga has notched details instead of usual pakati.

Except the elongated head with a high domed and undecorated forehead and with flat disc eyes, I think you will find most features of Northern carvings present or suggested in those of the Eastern school, though subdued or dominated by the elaboration of spirals and other ornamentation.

I am arguing for a common centre somewhere between Whakatane and the East Coast—probably nearer the former than the latter (the Opotiki Carvings will have to be studied more closely) followed by a sharp diffusion northwards as well as extension through the parent territory—greater development in the latter because of the more stable

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One of the ‘epa’ of the meeting house ‘Te Hau Ki Turanga’ in the Dominion Museum. Note the peculiar head, claw-like features, notched details and other typical Northern features on this old carving. (National Publicity Studios Photograph)

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Two Northern burial chest in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Photo, Peter Blanc)

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conditions and the presence of superior artists and perhaps of more suitable Stone Tools—a suspension, then a summary ending of the art in the North, while it received a greater filip in the parent territory from the introduction of steel tools.

Was there any Melanesian influence on Maori Art?

If the centre was as suggested among a people which traditions persist in placing centuries before the fleet of 1350 and connecting with a non-Polynesian strain, should we eliminate the possibility of Western Pacific influence

Buck strongly supports the theory of local development and is sceptical of the idea of any Melanesian influence; but in a recent letter telling me of a visit to a village in Fiji, where he had a glimpse of a house with similar forms and ornamentation, he is not quite sure, Elsewhere he has emphasised the conservatism of Maori art. The art of carving exemplified in the work of all schools does show a strong tendency to stick to certain features and conventions. But another strong characteristic of the Maori is copying—the art would not have been so greatly diffused over the Eastern area but for this. He copied a new thing, adopted its characteristic features, then transmitted them through the generations.

Students need a classified collection of photographs

There is an urgent need for a comprehensive study and tabulation of material connected with superior Maori houses and ornamentation—carvings, panels and painted patterns—classifying the same, recording the technique of each branch of the art, arranging the matter in such a way as to assist students of Maori art not only to follow the development of the art and the classification according to the schools, but also to understand the principles and essential details of construction. The subject should be pursued down to the present day, as it is certain that building by-laws, and new customs among the Maori people such as sitting on chairs, entertaining from elevated platforms, using dressing rooms, other facilities and convenient doors will perpetuate the modifications in carved halls which have come in in the last thirty years (the M.S. says nine.—Editor.)

We want a classified collection of photographs with sub-classes and so forth including material from overseas. Recent adaptation and development should be recorded. If Maori ornamentation is ever to find its way into public and private buildings in this country it may be popularised through the medium of such collections.

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Figure from ‘Te Hau Ki Turanga’ (N.P.S. Photograph)