Inside the Collection

Pacific objects in focus #3: New Zealand hei-tiki

Hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade)
Hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade) / paua shell / gum, New Zealand, c.1810. A5324. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The hei-tiki is the most famous of all Maori jewellery items. Humanoid in shape, they are typically characterised by a tilting head, huge, gaping open mouth, large, bulbous eyes, splayed hips with arms akimbo and a pronounced and often dilated vulval area (Starzeka 1996: p.43)*. It has been speculated whether or not this expression is illustrative of a woman giving birth (more specifically, the birthing goddess Hine-te-Iwaiwa), but the figures are also often shown to be quite sexless; leading others to suggest the hei-tiki may, in fact, be an appearance of ‘Tiki, the First Man’ in Maori mythology.

Hei-tikis are most commonly made from pounamu – the Maori name given to nephrite, the only jade mineral found in New Zealand. While it occurs in a wide range of colours, there are three which are most widely recognised by Maoris, including: inanga (which has a pearly-white, bluey-white or light green colour), kawakawa (named for its resemblance to the dark green leaves of the kawakawa plant; which also comprises flecked or speckled inclusions) and kahurangi (characterised by light streaks). The Museum’s example is of the kawakawa type.

Portrait of New Zealand Maori King Tawhiao
Photographic negative, portrait of New Zealand Maori King Tawhiao wearing a hei-tiki, glass / silver / gelatin, photographed by Henry King, Sydney, Australia, 1884. 85/1285-292. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Hei-tikis are worn or carried as a talisman of protection, fertility and easy childbirth (the ‘hei’ prefix refers to something suspended from the neck). They could be worn by both men and women and were traditionally passed down through the family as heirlooms. Mana, or spiritual presence, was a very valued aspect of the hei-tiki which derived from their ancestors who wore them. Many hei-tiki’s were also given their own personal name and celebrated through song, stories and dance.

Label on reverse of hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade)
Label on reverse of hei-tiki, pounamu (nephrite jade) / paua shell / gum, New Zealand, c.1810. A5324. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

This particular hei-tiki is a notably large and well-preserved example measuring 16.5cm in height. It is unique for its provenance, which is mostly preserved on a handwritten label on the back. It reads:

‘Tiki belonged to Governor / Davey – Tasmania who left it to his / Daughter – married Surgeon [///] RN / [///] daughter Lachlina married / Arthur Walker Esq who gave it to his / Son’s wife – daughter of Capt.. [///] / Scott RN / [///] J.  A. Hinton Almar [Guildford, NSW]’.

The tiki was subsequently passed down the family line until the last privately known owner, Christian Rowe Thornett, donated it to the Museum in 1966.

This hei-tiki will be on display in the ‘Protection, beliefs and magic’ section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity opening at the Powerhouse Museum in September 2014.

Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator, Design and Society

* For more information on tikis and pounamu in Maori material culture, see: Roger Neich, ‘Pounamu: Maori jade of New Zealand’ (Auckland, 1997) and D. C. Starzecka (ed.), ‘Maori Art and Culture’ (London, 1996).


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