Volume 42 1933 > Volume 42, No. 165 > Maori amulets in stone, bone, and shell, by H. D. Skinner, p 1-9
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THE most numerous of Maori amulets are those in human form, and this preponderance in numbers almost certainly denotes their greater importance on the psychic side of Maori life. But forms of life other than human were also represented among Maori amulets, including birds, reptiles, and fish. Of these, birds are the most numerous in collections, and were, therefore, presumably, the most important.

As already noted, we know little enough about the meaning of amulets in human form. Our knowledge of the meaning of bird-shaped amulets is almost equally scanty. Best says: 1 “A much favoured ear ornament among both sexes was that called a pohoi. It consisted of a bunch of the soft downy feathers of the albatross or gannet. … Birds often provided ear pendants of other forms, such as the heads, wings, and beaks of various species, also strips of skin with feathers attached, and pieces of bone. Occasionally a person would suspend a small bird from his ear, 2 and Yate tells us that he saw live birds so worn, birds of small species, the head being thrust through the hole in the ear. It would remain so suspended until it died, and for some time after.” It will be admitted that the wearing of living birds, of bird-skins or strips of skin with the feathers attached, or of the dried heads of birds like the huia, the beak of which is long and handsome, must have been due primarily to the colour and beauty of the material. But how is the piece of bird-bone mentioned by Best to be explained? And did this decorative motive alone lead to the making of bone and greenstone pendants - 2 in the shape of birds? It would appear that birds entered into the religious concepts of the Maori a good deal more than has been told, and that these bird-forms connoted aspects of religious beliefs that are otherwise lost to us. We learn from Best 3 of a woman, who, after death, was transformed into a bird, a cormorant, and became a tribal banshee. He also records 4 that birds were used as messengers in white magic, and that they were released during certain religious rites: “This singular act took place during the performance of the Tohi rite over an infant, a form of baptism, at the lifting of the tapu from a newly built fortified village, during the initiation of a tohunga matakite (seer), etc. … The present writer is by no means clear as to the precise meaning of the above act, but apparently it was a form of communication with the gods.” 5

Information regarding the existence of a bird-cult in other parts of Polynesia is scanty. At the Chatham Islands, “neatly carved figures of birds were made out of akeake wood, twenty or more in number, and these were placed in parallel rows on the tuahu.6 Dendy 7 records the finding of the wooden figure of a bird in a Moriori grave. Wilson 8 says of the great marae of Oberea at Tahiti: “When Sir Joseph Banks saw this place there was in the centre of the summit a representation of a bird carved in wood and close by it the figure of a fish carved in stone; but both are now gone.” The bird-cult of Easter Island has been described in some detail by Mrs. Scoresby Routledge. 9 These facts from other parts of Polynesia strengthen the probability that the bird-shaped pendants of the Maori had, originally, a religious significance.

Fig. 25, the largest of realistic Maori bird-shaped pendants known to the writer, is ten inches in length and is made of opaque bluish greenstone. It was found at

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Purakanui, near Dunedin. Fig. 26 is an interesting specimen, three inches long, in pale greenstone, dug up at Willowbridge, South Canterbury. With it was found a piece of greenstone from which two similar pendants were being cut, showing clearly the method by which Fig. 26 was made, and in particular the wing. A small block of greenstone three inches long and ¾ inch thick was ground flat on each of its two sides. It was then worked into the outline form of a bird seen in profile. The next step was to saw it almost through so that two birds were produced, both in profile, instead of one. Before the two scarfs required by the Maori method of sawing greenstone finally met, a strong blow was struck on one of the component birds, breaking the septum that still separated the two scarfs. Part of the septum remained on each bird, and this was ground down to represent the wing, as shown in fig. 26. The process was ingenious, and called for no little skill, especially in providing a curved lower margin for the wing. Fig. 27 is an example in bone from Kaingaroa, Chatham Island. It is notched at the tail for suspension. Unfortunately the beak, which would probably have enabled us to identify it with certainty, is broken. The bird most frequently represented by the Morioris was the pukeko, but fig. 27 would appear to be a duck. Fig. 28, 3¾ inches in maximum length, and made of tangiwai, is from a burial on the north side of Hooper's Inlet, near Dunedin. Two other pendants, one to be figured in a later section, and a finely-cut whalebone comb, were found with this burial. Fig. 29 is from a photograph of pendants formerly in the John White collection, Dunedin. It is about four inches long and was probably derived, with much else in that collection, from the top layer at Murdering Beach. The scarf is perhaps a poorly executed attempt to indicate a wing, but more probably an abandoned attempt to cut the slab in another shape before the bird-shape was thought of. Fig. 30 is six inches long and is made of opaque dark greenstone. The notching which appears on fig. 26 is here also. The locality is Wickliffe Bay, near Dunedin. Fig. 31, about four inches long and made of fawn-coloured steatite, is a conventionalised rendering of the bird-form. The mandibles are unfortunately broken, but the cutting of them with stone tools represents the highest degree of skill in - 6 that kind of work. This conventional rendering of a bird's head is common enough in Maori wood-carving, and is not uncommon in bone; but this is the only stone example known to the writer. Fig. 32 is a pendant five inches long, in whale ivory, from the North Island, illustrating the same motive. Fig. 33, four inches long and of the same material, is from Chatham Island, indicating that the motive was present among the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand. Of this we may be confident though we have, at present, no stratigraphic evidence. Figs. 34-37 illustrate a process of simplification, often called degeneration, whereby an originally realistic motive passes into a purely geometric one. This process appears to be due to the attraction of a large group of curved pendants which depend for their appeal on beauty of material and on the aesthetic value of the curve. Economy of effort may also have played a part in the process of simplification. This purely geometric group is the largest group of all Maori pendants, but it is not figured here because it is not an amulet.

Fig. 34, 4¾ inches, is from Purakanui, and is made of translucent tangiwai. Fig. 35, 2½ inches, is from Long Beach, Otago, and is made of grass-green nephrite. Fig. 36, 2¼ inches, from Centre Island, Foveaux Strait, is beautifully cut from bird-bone. Fig. 37, 15 inches, from Kennedy Bay, Coromandel Peninsula, is in some respects the most beautiful Maori pendant known. It is made of translucent tangiwai of perfect colour. A pendant-amulet of the same material and shape, 13½ inches long, is in the Australian Museum, Sydney, and has been described by W. W. Thorpe. 10 Though not so beautiful as fig. 37 it is more interesting in that it retains the carefully plaited loop of flax-fibre for suspension, and a long tress of dyed flax attached to it.

The amulets in bird-form just examined (figs. 25-37) represent, each of them, a single bird. Their Maori name, if it existed, has not, so far as I know, been recorded in print. The following pieces (figs. 38-40) each represent two birds. Their Maori name is pekapeka. Williams gives several meanings for this word which is the name also of Mystarops tuberculata, the New Zealand bat. If the - 7 amulet derives its name from the bat, it probably does so from the similarity of its outline shape.

Fig. 38, 2¼ inches across, is of nephrite and comes from Hokianga. Fig. 39, 2 inches across, is made of beautiful grass-green nephrite; locality not known. Fig. 40, 3 inches across, is made from human parietal, and formerly had paua inlay in the eyes. The locality is Ruapekapeka Pa, North Auckland. The heads of the outward-facing birds are clear enough, and their bodies unite in a U as in the two preceding figures. The meaning of the rest of the lattice-work is obscure, the artist who carved the piece being guided, it would seem, by aesthetic considerations solely. Fig. 41, 2 inches across, is from Kaikohe, North Auckland. It differs from the three preceding pieces in having human heads in place of bird heads. The interchangeability of human and bird heads in the Easter Island script and in the Solomons was demonstrated long ago by Henry Balfour, so that it should not be surprising in another area of Oceania. There is, in fact, plenty of evidence of the same thing in Maori art. There is in the Taranaki Museum a pekapeka long worn by Te Whiti on his watch-chain. The heads are similar to those of fig. 41, and Taranaki Maoris speak of the two figures represented as men. Fig. 42 shows the marakihau figure strongly influenced by the pekapeka form, being perhaps more correctly described as a hybrid between the two forms. Maximum length, 2¾ inches, material nephrite, locality Utakura Valley, Hokianga. Fig. 43, 2½ inches, nephrite, North Cape, is a marakihau form much less influenced by the pekapeka than the preceding figure. Fig. 44, 1¾ inches, nephrite, north of Kaitaia, is clearly marakihau. Here also should have come fig. 8, which was placed with forms standing close to the hei-tiki group, but outside it, only because I had not then seen the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection of marakihau, a group which demonstrates that the Maoris north of Auckland commonly rendered that form in nephrite. The pekapeka also seems to be a northern product, the most southerly genuine example which I have seen being a greenstone example from a grave in South Taranaki.

Fig. 45, 1¾ inches, nephrite, Awhitu, on Manukau Harbour, is a human form greatly influenced by the marakihau and pekapeka groups.

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Fig. 25. Bird-shaped pendant. Greenstone. 10 inches. Purakanui. Otago University Museum, D. 24.1272.

Fig. 26. Bird-shaped pendant. Greenstone. 3 inches. Willowbridge. Otago University Museum, D. 29.6006.

Fig. 27. Bird-shaped pendant. Bone. 3 inches. Kaingaroa, Chatham Island. Otago University Museum, D. 24.99.

Fig. 28. Bird-shaped pendant. Tangiwai. Hooper's Inlet. Otago University Museum, D. 25.429.

Fig. 29. Bird-shaped pendant. Greenstone. 4 inches. ? Murdering Beach. John White collection (? Field Museum).

Fig. 30. Bird-shaped pendant. Greenstone. 6½ inches. Wickliffe Bay. Otago University Museum, D. 25.603.

Fig. 31. Bird-shaped pendant. Steatite. 3¾ inches. Murdering Beach. Otago University Museum, D. 24.1438.

Fig. 32. Bird-shaped pendant. Whale ivory. 5 inches. North Island. Otago University Museum, D. 24.1214.

Fig. 33. Bird-shaped pendant. Whale ivory. 4 inches. Chatham Island. Otago University Museum, D. 19.37.

Fig. 34. Bird-shaped pendant. Tangiwai. 4¾ inches. Purakanui. Otago University Museum, D. 23.194.

Fig. 35. Bird-shaped pendant. Greenstone. 2½ inches. Long Beach. Otago University Museum, D. 24.1265.

Fig. 36. Bird-shaped pendant. Bird-bone. 2¼ inches. Centre Island. Otago University Museum, D. 23.136.

Fig. 37. Bird-shaped pendant. Tangiwai. 15 inches. Kennedy Bay, Coromandel Peninsula. Auckland War Memorial Museum. No. 6234.

Fig. 38. Pekapeka. Greenstone. 2¼ inches. Hokianga. Auckland War Memorial Museum, No. 6209.

Fig. 39. Pekapeka. Greenstone. 2 inches. Location, unknown. Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Fig. 40. Pekapeka. Human parietal. 3 inches. Ruapekapeka Pa. Otago University Museum, D. 24.1209.

Fig. 41. ? Pekapeka. Greenstone. 2⅛ inches. Kaikohe. Auckland War Memorial Museum, No. 2750.

Fig. 42. Marakihau. Greenstone. Utakura Valley, Hokianga. 2¾ inches. Auckland War Memorial Museum, No. 17376.

Fig. 43. Marakihau. Greenstone. 2½ inches. North Cape. Auckland War Memorial Museum. No. 16171.

Fig. 44. Marakihau. Greenstone. 1¾ inches. Kaitaia. Auckland War Memorial Museum, No. 6644.

Fig. 45. Human figure pendant. Greenstone. 1¾ inches. Auckland War Memorial Museum, No. 5600.

1   The Maori, 2, pp. 535ff.
2   See Angas, The New Zealanders Illustrated, plate 39, fig. 13.
3   Ibid, 1, p. 202.
4   Ibid, 1, p. 467.
5   Ibid, 1, p. 280.
6   Skinner [quoting Shand], Memoirs B. P. Bishop Museum, 9, p. 58.
7   Trans. N.Z. Inst., 34 (1901) p. 130.
8   A Missionary Voyage … in the Ship Duff, 1799, p. 207.
9   Mystery of Easter Island, 2nd Edition, pp. 254-268.
10   N.Z. Jnl. Sc. & Techn., Sept., 1924, p. 181.