Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Maori Treasure Boxes

PRM 2004.27.2 © Pitt Rivers Museum

I've been busy researching Maori treasure boxes, often called feather boxes because they were used to store valued personal possessions including huia feathers. Maori people regarded the huia, a New Zealand wattlebird now extinct, as sacred (tapu).

Only those of a chiefly rank could use the skins as ear ornaments or the tail feathers as hair decorations. This photo from around 1900 shows Maggie Papukara, who was descended from Te Arawa chiefs, with two relatives all wearing huia feathers in their hair.

These carved wooden boxes became valued treasures (taonga) in themselves. They gained prestige (manaby containing items worn on the head, the most tapu part of the body. They also became tapu heirlooms through their association with particular owners.

Treasure boxes were designed to be kept suspended from the rafters. Look at this box from the Museum collection, shown below, to see how the base is curved rather than designed to sit on a flat surface. The carved heads at each end enabled the attachment of suspension cords, as well as serving as handles.

The Maori word for treasure boxes carved in this oval-shape style is wakahuia
PRM 1933.82.1 © Pitt Rivers Museum
Detail of the handle
© Pitt Rivers Museum
Detail of join between the lid and
the base © Pitt Rivers Museum

As you can see, the box is decoratively carved over the entire outer surface, the pattern creating an almost seamless join between the lid and base.

The wood is finished on the outside in two colours. The darker colour was often created by mixing shark oil and powdered charcoal  The reddish orange effect usually a combination of shark oil and red ochre (kokowai).

Lid (top) and base (below) © Pitt Rivers Museum

Look at these photos on the right, showing the lid and the base, to see how colour highlights the
details of the carved pattern on the base in particular. This would be the most visible part of the box when suspended overhead.

Maori treasure boxes soon became popular souvenirs with Europeans. This resulted in some carvings being produced specifically for the tourist trade. This may have been the case with the two you can see below, both in the Museum collections, which are designed to stand on a flat surface.
Treasure boxes designed to stand on a flat surface, PRM 1952.3.3 (left), PRM 2000.21.1 (right) © Pitt Rivers Museum

You will be able to see all of these treasure boxes in the Museum towards the end of the year as part of a new display dedicated to the art of Maori woodcarving.  There are several already on display in the Museum's Court (ground floor) - you can hear staff talk about one of them (PRM 1927.81.1) here:

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

If you are interested in reading more about feather boxes and Maori carving see:

Julie Paama-Pengelly, 2010, Maori Art and Design (New Zealand: New Holland Publishers).

Roger Neich, 2001, Carved Histories (New Zealand: Auckland University Press).

D.C. Starzecka (editor), 1996, Maori Art and Culture (London: British Museum Press).

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