Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Early Maori Woodcarvings

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The art of woodcarving was brought to New Zealand by the ancestors of the present-day Maori, who likely settled the islands around 1100 A.D. Examples of ancient Maori wood sculpture are rare but a number survive, due, in part, to the practice of hiding valuable carvings by immersing them in swamps during times of unrest. The waterlogged environment subsequently preserved the wood.


Unlike its more sparely ornamented predecessors, classic Maori woodcarving is characterized by boldly rendered three-dimensional forms whose surfaces are engraved with intricate designs.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (4)

  • War God, Uenukutuwhatu
  • Doubtless Prow (canoe prow)
  • Architectural Ornament, "Kaitaia Lintel"
  • Head, possibly from a staff

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Much of early Maori woodcarving shows stylistic affinities with works from eastern Polynesia, where the ancestors of the Maori almost certainly originated. As the generations passed, a distinctively Maori carving style gradually began to emerge, developing into what is recognized as the classic Maori style sometime around 1500. Unlike its more sparely ornamented predecessors, classic Maori woodcarving is characterized by boldly rendered three-dimensional forms whose surfaces are engraved with intricate designs.


According to one Maori oral tradition, the art of woodcarving was brought to their ancestors by the cultural hero Ruatepupuke. In the story, Ruatepupuke's son Manuruhi offended Tangaroa, the god of the sea. As punishment, Tangaroa abducted Manuruhi, transforming him into a woodcarving to adorn the gable of his house beneath the sea. Ruatepupuke descended into the sea in search of his son, where he overheard the carved ancestor posts of Tangaroa's house talking to each other. The posts told him where to find Manuruhi. Angered by the mistreatment of his son, Ruatepupuke set fire to Tangaroa's house. He then returned to the human world, bringing Manuruhi and several carved posts with him, and introduced the art of woodcarving to humanity. The reference to talking carvings in the story evokes the aesthetic standards Maori carvers aspire to in creating their work. A masterful carving is said to "speak" to the viewer, while a lesser example remains silent.

Jennifer Wagelie
Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York

Figure symbolic of the god Uenukutuwhatu, Te Tipunga period (ca. 1200–1500)
Waikato people; found at Lake Ngaroto, 1906
Wood; H. 8 ft. 9 in. (167 cm)
Formerly R. W. Bourne Collection
Te Awamutu Museum (2056)

Possibly created around 1400, this imposing post image is traditionally said to be symbolic of Uenukutuwhatu, patron deity and protector of the Waikato people. According to Waikato tradition, when necessary Uenukutuwhatu was asked to manifest himself within the post where he could be consulted by the chiefs and priests. This work bears a striking resemblance to some Hawaiian images, although the two island groups are thousands of miles apart.

Canoe prow (haumi), Early Maori, Te Tipunga period (ca. 1200–1500)
Northland, Doubtless Bay
Wood; L. 42 1/8 in. (107 cm)
Auckland War Memorial Art (3078)
Formerly E. E. Vaile Collection

The imagery of this canoe prow shows the beginning of the emergence of a distinctively Maori style from the ancestral carving traditions. The form and ornamentation of the work retains some eastern Polynesian features while the dragonlike head resembles later Maori manaia—distinctive figures whose heads often look like those of birds or reptiles.

Architectural ornament, Te Tipunga period (ca. 1200–1500)
North Island, Kaitaia
Wood; 88 5/8 in. (225 cm)
Auckland Museum

Often known as the "Kaitaia Lintel" after the place where it was discovered, this remarkable architectural carving is one of the masterworks of early Maori sculpture. The form of the central figure closely resembles some human images from the Austral Islands, reflecting the eastern Polynesian ancestry of the Maori.

Head, possibly from a staff, Te Tipunga period (ca. 1200–1500)
North Island, Ongare Point, Tauranga Harbor
Wood; H. 5 7/8 in. (15 cm)
Auckland War Memorial Museum (45592.2)

With its small lozenge-shaped eyes surrounded by concentric crescents, this early Maori head bears a striking resemblance to images from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Like many early works, it is stylistically closer to the ancestral eastern Polynesian traditions than it is to classic Maori carving.