Wooden box and feeding funnel

[b]Top:[/b] Purchased from Stevens Auction Rooms in 1925; 1925.63.3[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Collected and donated by Maggie Papakura (Makereti) in 1928; 1928.1.2Top: Purchased from Stevens Auction Rooms in 1925; 1925.63.3
Bottom: Collected and donated by Maggie Papakura (Makereti) in 1928; 1928.1.2
Māori people, New Zealand, before 1928

These objects not only play an important role in the process of tā moko but also illustrate the common artistic heritage of Māori tattooing and wood carving (whakairo).

The small box, just under 8 cm long, is thought to have been used to hold the heads of tattooing tools that were traditionally made from albatross bone. The box would have been a prized possession of the tattoo artist (tohunga) together with a pot for pigment, which were also typically made from wood and covered in intricate and beautiful carvings. These special containers often became heirlooms, used to tattoo the faces and bodies of one generation after another.

Carved on the lid of the box is a manaia, a half-human, half-animal mythological figure that acts as an intermediary between the mortal and spiritual worlds. It became a favourite motif in carving and was used to adorn door and window lintels, barge-boards, outer threshold beams, ceremonial adze hafts, and various other objects. In this distinctive figure-of-eight form, the manaia is said to act as a guardian against evil and was perhaps applied in this context to protect the special tools in the box from contamination.

The high risk of infection and disfigurement combined with the sacred nature tā moko makes it a highly tapu (taboo) experience. The person being tattooed enters a phase of liminality, which excludes them from normal behaviours such as engaging in sexual activity or touching solid food. Therefore a special funnel (kōrere) is used to feed them broth and water. Meanwhile strips of karaka leaves are applied to the skin to help it heal.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the art of tattooing came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia. The Polynesian tradition used the 'puncture' technique – piercing the skin by tapping a bone-headed adze-shaped tool with a small hammer or mallet. Over time these tools were augmented by bone chisels (uhi) with straight, cutting edges that literally 'carved' the skin into textured grooves. This method borrowed directly from traditional wood carving techniques and the precise, curvilinear designs of moko can also be linked to the spiral motifs seen in carved wooden objects like these. The arrival of the Europeans from the late 18th century brought access to new materials, and metal blades began to be incorporated into traditional tools. Metal blades also brought about a revival of the puncture technique. Today many tohunga use a combination of traditional and electric tools.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England