Early Maori Woodcarvings

Works of Art


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.

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

October 2002


Wagelie, Jennifer. “Early Maori Woodcarvings.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maor/hd_maor.htm (October 2002)

Further Reading

Brown, Deidre. Northland Maori Wood Carving / Tai Tokerau whakairo rakau. Auckland: Reed, 2003.

Mead, Sidney Moko, ed. Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Abrams, 1984.

Starzecka, D. C., ed. Maori Art and Culture. Chicago: Art Media Resources, 1996.

Additional Essays by Jennifer Wagelie