Volume 57 1948 > Volume 57, No. 1 > Maori spirals, by W. J. Phillipps, p 30-40
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THE first forty-six of the forty-eight spirals illustrated in this discussion are from a series carved by Mr. Ranginui Kingi Paani Porete, of the Ngai Tahu tribe. Mr. Porete's first introduction to Maori carving was in copying the series of patterns which appeared in my small book on Maori Carving, 1941. Mr. Porete next purchased a copy of Maori Art, by A. Hamilton, studied the carving types depicted and copied a number of them. Mr. Porete's carving activities attracted wide attention and in September, 1946, he was granted a special bursary and began further studies of carvings under my direction at the Dominion Museum, Wellington.

In the knowledge that no carving student had worked consistently at copying a wide range of spiral types from all parts of New Zealand, it was decided that this would be a first essential task of the training course in Maori carving. My paper is the result of that first effort. No claim is made that the whole field has been covered, but there has been produced a series with a remarkable diversity of types, demonstrating the amazing aptitude of the ancient Maori carver, for only a few of the examples are modern.

I would define the Maori people as the one race in the world which has exalted the spiral conception in design to its highest level. In the Pacific, particularly in Melanesia, the use of the spiral in decoration is found often closely approximating certain Maori types, but only on the South American continent is there found an ordered series of spirals which can be compared with those of the Maori. But these are more standardised and less varied.

It is a relatively simple matter to prove that the spiral comes first to human consciousness in the growth of an individual or race. It is embodied in the scribble of the child; for this is an early natural movement not requiring the use of any complicated thought processes. The child's first attempts to draw a human figure are generally - 31 suggested by adults, but the scribble is a natural effort. In the biological world ontogeny repeats phylogeny, and similarly the spiral precedes the human figure in the history of many races.

The plain single spiral is relatively rare in Maori carving, but it is found in the most unlikely places. A typical series may be seen among specimens in the Oldman Collection, Plate 32, Fig. 567, where a maripi exhibits six plain spirals as single raised volutes; yet the artisan who carved this cutting implement knew the double spiral well, for he has executed two partially interlocking spiral types in the semi-pakura design running along the blade. Perhaps the single spiral was easier to carve; perhaps the carver had been trained in a lesser school which admitted carving of this description.

In this paper I have endeavoured to limit the references to as small a field as possible. The following abbreviations indicate the actual sources cited:

  • O.M.—Oldman, W. O., “Skilled Handwork of the Maori.” Memoir of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 14. 1939.
  • M.A.—Hamilton, Augustus. “Art Workmanship of the Maori Race.” N.Z. Institute. 1899-1904.
  • M.C.—Phillipps, W. J. Maori Carving. Avery. 1941.
  • M.D.—Phillipps, W. J. Maori Designs. Tombs. 1943.
  • M.A.—Phillipps, W. J. Maori Art. Tombs. 1946.

1. This spiral was first noted by us on a small Dominion Museum figure, but was found to be relatively common as a shoulder spiral in pataka carving from which it is evidently derived, the central straight line of the tara tara o kai being a concession to the mass of tara tara work on the carved pataka boards. This spiral is figured by Hamilton, M.A., p. 156, Pl. 23. Fig. 1, on an Auckland Museum pataka. It appears to be essentially Arawa.

2. The second spiral is constructed of two completely interlocking arms with a line of rauponga in the oval centre. It is used on a central forehead spiral of a koruru in the Dominion Museum. A similar type is seen on a slab of a pataka from Rotorua in the Oldman Collection, Pl. 82.

3. This spiral, and its various modifications, is one of the most important types of all Maori spirals as well as the - 32 most common. It is the general type used on the North Auckland and Raglan burial chests which the late Elsdon Best believed were definitely pre-Fleet and the work of Moriori people. A glance through any series such as the Oldman Collection will reveal just how common this spiral is. Essentially it is founded on an S-curve hollow and seems to me to be older than the completely interlocking types. It is of interest to compare this spiral with an almost identical type in rafter patterns. (See Phillipps, M.D., Pl. 1, L.)

4. The fourth type is related to the above-mentioned one, but here there are two partially interlocking hollows and a continuous ridge forming an S-curve in the centre. This spiral is the most simple expression of numerous types which follow. It is not nearly so common as the last mentioned, but is to be seen on some old Taranaki pare as well as on a few East Coast carvings. That it was not unknown in North Auckland is evidenced by its use on an old tauihu in the Dominion Museum collected by the late Capt. Bollons at Bay of Islands, and said to have been part of an old canoe broken up more than 100 years ago.

5. This spiral is nearly identical with the one just described. It is also not a very common type. In the Oldman series it is seen in Pl. 39, Fig. 331, from North Auckland, and in the Dominion Museum is present on the original waewae (upright doorway pillars) of the carved house Te Hau ki Turanga from the Gisborne district.

6. This spiral is a higher development of No. 5. As in that spiral there is a central straight line ridge from which the two volutes, or spiral arms, swing outward, but these ridges are placed sufficiently wide apart to enable two further ridges to be built up between them. These ridges begin from the ends of the central straight ridge. It is a rare spiral type carved from a central forehead pattern on a koruru in the Dominion Museum.

7. We now come to a type in which the two spiral ridges completely interlock. Because of an optical illusion this is not readily appreciated in the accompanying figure. Typical spirals of this description may be seen on some North Auckland waka huia in the Oldman Collection, Pl. 38, Fig. 4 and Pl. 39.

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B. W. Hall, photo.
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B. W. Hall, photo.
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B. W. Hall, photo.
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B. W. Hall, photo.
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B. W. Hall, photo.

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8. This is the nearest approach the Maori carver made to the swastika spiral of the Old World. It has evolved from the use of an S-curve ridge and two ridges beginning inside the folds (or angles) of the S so that in effect we have four ridges running outward in swastika fashion from a central point. I first noted this spiral on the carved house Nga tau e Waru at Masterton in 1938. (See Phillipps, M.A., 1946, p. 29, Fig. 50.) It is also to be seen occasionally in the field of Maori carving, but is relatively rare. In the above reference, p. 32, I have mentioned a related type in which six volutes radiate from the centre. This was the work of an East Coast carver and is to be seen on one of the figures guarding the gateway of Papawai pa, near Greytown.

9. Related to No. 7, where a single pair of ridges completely interlocks, is this type in which three pairs of ridges wholly interlock. This spiral is copied from a carving from Wi Tako's house in the Hutt Valley and now in the Dominion Museum. This house was carved about 1860.

10. This is an unusual type consisting of two ridges arising in the centre from a raised straight ridge. The spiral is somewhat elliptical in shape and each ridge is vertically cut on the inner edge and broadly oblique on the outer edge. Triangular incisions on these wide outer edges of the ridges are placed at intervals to give artistic effect. This spiral type is copied from the pare from Bell Block, Taranaki, and now in the Dominion Museum. (See Phillipps, M.A., 1946, Fig. 4B.)

11. A type in which the spiral ridges are indented at intervals is also seen in Fig. 11. The spiral is related to an already described type, but the ridges have been slashed directly across with a V-shaped incision. This spiral is taken from a carving on Wi Tako's house, now in the Dominion Museum.

12. This spiral type introduces the class in which crescentric interpolations cross the grooves from one side to the other. Here the crescents are arranged in groups ranging from three to seven. There are an unusually large number in the centre, arranged so as to leave a circular hole perhaps formerly adorned with a circular piece of paua shell. This is copied from a burial chest from Raglan, now in the Dominion Museum.

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13. We now discuss a spiral of the burial chest series where an indication is given of the later development in which the crescent groups are joined below. In some Taranaki pare the feature is seen of the crescents crossing plain grooves to rest against a ridge two grooves distant. The tendency among many modern carvers has been to discard the crescent shape and use straight lines in this type of carving.

14. Here the spiral arms partially interlock and groups of three crescents joined below cross the spiral grooves. This gives a flower-like effect and has been termed ponahi. As a type it may be seen on the Newman pare in the Wanganui Museum. A variant of this spiral is to be seen on northern canoe prows, notably one in the British Museum, where two flattened spiral arms completely interlock and the ponahi design is carved at intervals on the spiral arms.

15. This spiral has been already figured in Phillipps, M.A., 1946, p. 8. It is identical with No. 14, save that here there is a continuous central ridge. It is the “spiral de luxe” of the Te Hau ki Turanga house in the Dominion Museum.

16. This remarkable spiral, in which both pakati groups and ponahi appear in the grooves, has been copied from the carved figure seen in M.A. by Hamilton, Pl. 26, Fig. 4 (upper right figure). This carving is said by Hamilton to come from the Auckland district. The use of a five fingered hand, and the general spiral design, would seem to relegate this carving into one of the lesser schools of carving art.

17. This is a very simple spiral type in which a single plain ridge and a single notched ridge interlock. The notched ridge is termed pakati, and each notch is called an arapata. These spirals are still used on some houses in northern parts of the East Coast, but are relatively uncommon elsewhere. A related example from Auckland is seen in M.A. by Hamilton, Pl. 26, Fig. 4 (right-hand figure). In this case the notched ridge or pakati is broken up into groups. In a slab from the Maru pataka (Rotorua) in the Oldman Collection, Pl. 82, two to three plain ridges interlock with a single pakati ridge.

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18. Here we have a spiral closely related to No. 6, but in this case the partially interlocking ridges are notched. Sometimes two or three plain ridges are used in this spiral type, and an example is to be seen on the waka huia in the Oldman Collection, Pl. 38, Fig. 328. The original type was copied from a Dominion Museum photograph.

19. This is one of the most common of all spirals. It is a development of the type in which a plain S-curve is used and pakati ridges partially interlock. It is the spiral chiefly used today on the carved houses in the territory of the Arawa confederated tribes, but belongs equally to Taranaki and North Auckland. It is to be seen on a North Auckland waka huia in the Oldman Collection, Pl. 38, Fig. 328, and on taiaha tongues in Hamilton, M.A., p. 238, Pl. 27.

20. This is closely related to Nos. 25 and 26, and is one of those simple spirals in which the notched ridge, or pakati, is broken up into groups termed takarangi. This spiral is used on a number of houses in Arawa territory but is not so common as the takarangi type in which plain ridges interlock. Two examples are (a) the S-curve takarangi spirals on the lower maihi edge of Pikiao, Lake Rotoiti, the carving being by Te Ngaru the younger, and (b) the doorway carvings (waewae) of Hine-nui-te-Po, Te Whaiti (an Arawa house).

21. As a type, No. 21 is identical with No. 19 already described, except that the notched ridge has been broken up into groups relating it to No. 20. It has been copied from a Taranaki spiral on a pare in the Dominion Museum, but is a comparatively rare type.

22. This spiral is essentially similar to No. 19, save that there is a joining of the plain ridges in peaked formations in the centre, leaving the central plain ridge either to form a true S-curve or to be pointed at one angle as in the illustration. A number of Dominion Museum carvings from the Lake Rotoiti area exhibit these spirals which appear to belong chiefly to that territory. A modification of this spiral is largely used by modern carvers.

23. A North Auckland modification of No. 22 is seen in this spiral which is copied from a Dominion Museum - 36 photograph of a pataka maihi. A closely related type is seen on a pataka doorway figure, Oldman Collection, Pl. 78.

24. This is a spiral which is developed from No. 19. In it the plain ridges cross over the pakati, or notched ridge, at intervals. It appears to be chiefly an Arawa modification, and sometimes a wavy ridge runs from one side of the spiral to the other. These interpolations have been explained to me as the track of the maggot—the last enemy of man at the tangi. The highest expression of this spiral is seen in two interlocking circles which appear on the marakihau figures of the Te Kuiti house (Phillipps, M.A., 1946, p. 24, Fig. 38) and in a few other places (Hamilton, M.A., p. 146, Pl. 17).

25. We have here the common takarangi spiral so adequately displayed on the open work of the tauihu of a Maori war canoe. The interlocking of the plain ridges is complete and the pakati broken up into groups. In Arawa carved houses it is usual to find this spiral used alternating with manaia, or side-face figures, on the lower maihi margin. It is also used to fill in on the tahu edges where carved figures are used above the porch.

26. Here is a replica of No. 25. A different effect in the pakati is produced by the down cut V-notch in the top of each notch or arapata.

27. The original of this spiral type is to be seen in a carved slab from the Auckland district figured by Hamilton in M.A., p. 162, Pl. 26, Fig. 4. It is identical with a more common type which follows, No. 28, except that the pakati is in groups as in takarangi.

28. This is the spiral termed rauru in the series carved by Anaha and described by me in M.C., 1941, p. 23, Fig. 6. It is the main type used in the large house Te Hau ki Turanga from Gisborne, and is not so common in the Rotorua area. Any carving or decoration in which plain ridges and notched ridges run parallel is termed rauponga, and most rauponga of today are composed of three plain ridges and one notched ridge. So here we have one of the most common spiral types composed of rauponga design. Note the line of pakati in the oval centre, and compare it with No. 2.

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29. This spiral has been copied from the large type used on the lower ends of the maihi of the large Dominion Museum pataka said to have been carved by Ngati Pikiao carvers in the Rotorua district. This spiral is more or less identical with No. 25, except that the plain ridges only partially interlock.

30. Here the pakati is constructed in a continuous S-curve ridge and the plain ridges do not interlock. This spiral may be seen in a Dominion Museum photograph of Wi Tako's pataka dorway (Phillipps, M.A., 1946, p. 33) and also on the paepae of a pataka from near Otaki (Hamilton, M.A., 1896, p. 129 and p. 238, Pl. 27, a taiaha).

31. The spiral with the flattened S-curve plain ridge, and two partially interlocking pakati ridges, is one of the types of rape spiral found on the rumps of carved human figures forming the base of the poutokomanawa of carved houses. A variant of this spiral with the pakati in groups, as in the previously mentioned takarangi type, is to be seen on the paepae of the Taupo pataka in the Canterbury Museum. This paepae is from an old pataka formerly owned by the great Te Heuheu, and was built at Waihi, near Tokaanu.

32. Hamilton in M.A, p. 266, has figured this spiral on the step of a ko in the British Museum. It is based on a relatively wide and flattened S-curve hollow with two partially interlocking pakati arms enclosed in plain ridges, joined and rounded in the centre.

33. This unusual type was copied from a waka huia in the Dominion Museum. It is a higher development of No. 31. Two “close together” plain ridges curve into each curve of the flattened S ridge, and on each side of this pair of ridges are pakati ridges so that four separate pakati ridges run outward.

34. We now discuss a spiral somewhat similar to No. 33, but here the central S-curve ridge is a pakati ridge. Plain ridges alternate with pakati, there being plain ridges of S-curve type on each side of the central pakati ridge. Four pakati ridges arise independently inside the spiral. This spiral was copied from the Nga Rangi o Rehua monument from the Wanganui River. This came into the - 38 possession of Sir Walter Buller late last century, and is regarded as being very old (Phillipps, M.A., p. 39, Fig 59).

35. A rape spiral copied from a Dominion Museum figure is seen here. It is in fact closely related to Nos. 33 and 34. It agrees with No. 33 in having a central plain S-curve ridge, but all other spiral arms or volutes run into the curves of the S. In all, six pakati ridges run outward alternating with moderately flattened plain ridges.

36. This spiral has been copied from the rape of an old carved figure and taken from a photograph in the Dominion Museum. It is constructed to illustrate two greatly flattened completely interlocking arms pointed in the centre, and outlined by pakati ridges.

37. We now come to a group of spirals in which side V-shape notching appears. This particular spiral is copied from a central forehead spiral of an ancestral figure in Te Hau ki Turanga, but is also to be found in various other carvings. The spiral ridges are steeply cut on one side and very oblique on the other, the steeply cut edge being notched at wide intervals.

38. This work is similar to No 37, but the notching is much increased and a raised S-curve ridge appears in the centre. The Pukehina pataka in the Dominion Museum exhibits a variety of spirals in the older portions of the carving, and this spiral is one of the types which appear on the maihi.

39. This spiral is found on the Pukehina pataka and consists of an S-curve flattened hollow and two flattened and raised partially interlocking arms. It may be necessary for the student to invert this spiral and gaze at it for some time to appreciate these features because at first sight an optical illusion makes it appear identical with No. 40.

40. In this instance we have another spiral from the Pukehina pataka, but here there is a raised flattened S-curve ridge notched as in the previous examples in tara tara o kai fashion. This is the main surface decoration spiral on the Te Kaha maihi in the Auckland Museum, though cross interpolations, as in No. 41, appear at widely spaced intervals.

41. In this case we have a spiral type with an S-curve flattened ridge in tara tara o kai, and two plain ridges - 39 beginning inside the folds of the S. The tara tara o kai ridges are joined or bridged at intervals, a fairly common feature on a number of old pataka carvings where this particular design is common. The example used here was copied from an East Coast stockade figure in the Canterbury Museum. Spirals of this order are common on the pataka carvings of Maru, from Rotorua, once in the Berlin Museum.

42. Another common pataka spiral type is here figured. It is based on a plain ridge with flattened ridges running into the folds of the S. This spiral was copied from a photograph of a pataka doorway in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu

43. This spiral is a duplicate of No. 41, but differs in the absence of bridges across the plain ridges. It is the type described by me under the term whakaironui (M.C., p. 29, Fig. 9). Whakaironui is used on the maihi of the large Dominion Museum pataka, and is to be seen in Best's work on “The Lizard in Maori Carving,” N.Z. Journal of Science and Technology, 5, 1923, p. 326.

44. We now come to a spiral type in which three arms, or volutes, radiate from a central point. Not many of these spirals are in tara tara o kai. The triple spiral, or a modification of it, is often used in tattoo as a lower cheek spiral (see Oldman Collection, Pl. 81). Another triple spiral type consists of three plain and more or less flattened ridges running parallel to three pakati ridges, and is to be seen on the Nga Rangi o Rehua monument.

45. This is not a common spiral. It is copied from a needle in the Napier Museum, but the type on the needle, though worn, resembles tara tara o kai only in the appearance of the bone. In this type there is a flattened and hollow S-curve in the centre and two pairs of radiating flattened ridges partially interlocking.

46. A curious East Coast type of spiral is seen in this figure. It is included on account of its use on several interior poupou of the carved house Poho o Rukupo, at Manutuke, near Gisborne, the oldest carved house standing on the East Coast. In a letter to me, Mr. Rongo Halbert also refers to this house as Turanginui a Kiwa. It was first figured by Hamilton in M.A., p. 163, Pl. 12, and later described by me in Carved Maori Houses of the Eastern - 40 Districts of the North Island, 1944, p. 93. This spiral shows some relationship to No. 36. However, the pakati is reduced to an occasional bridge, and the main flattened volutes are joined in the centre. A closely similar spiral type appears in rafter design (see Phillipps, M.D., Pl. 3, D.)

47. We now come to a consideration of the Chatham Island spiral, a single raised volute with ladder-like cross notching, probably primitive pakati. It is of interest to note that the upper spiral divides into two. The lower spiral appears to have a definite bulb in the centre. If this is deliberate it links up with the old spiral types of the mainland in which a central bulb appears, e.g., Phillipps, 1927, “Note on a Carved Rock in Taranaki,” J.P.S., 36, p. 135. This curved stalk with a bulb at one end used in rafter patterns is termed koru. For a series of diagrams illustrating a possible evolution of the koru into spiral designs see M.D., p. 6.

48. This shows a section of an old burial chest in the Dominion Museum. On the forehead above the eye is a spiral type intermediate between the koru and an S-curve spiral, a type of which is seen on the shoulder of the figure.