Looking at Hei Tiki

Looking at Hei Tiki

On 8th March I gave a talk at MTG in Napier about my research into the iconic Māori adornment hei tiki. The talk was to complement their recently opened and strikingly beautiful exhibition Pounamu.

Link to NZ Herald article on MTG Pounamu exhibition, 24 December 2014  

A diverse audience of about 70 people turned up on the day to listen to my talk, ranging from general interest through to pounamu carvers of very passionate interest.

Sign outside MTG, Napier. Photo by D. Austin 8/3/15
Sign outside MTG, Napier. Photo by D. Austin 8/3/2015

One of the main things I have been looking at is how styles of hei tiki appear to ahere to, or are worked away from, original rectangular or wedge shaped pieces of cut pounamu. The discovery of pounamu sawing techniques using mania or abrasive stone saws is credited with having been important for the development of a multi-purpose pounamu adze blade. This style of adze blade rose to prominence to help define the ‘classic Māori’ cultural phase, post AD 1500. I think that this newfound pounamu working technology was also important for the appearance of the ‘classic Māori’ adornment hei tiki; – that the origins of hei tiki and the origins of the common style of toki pounamu are probably closely linked together.

Sometimes hei tiki were also made from old adze blades themselves which were recycled for their valuable pounamu. The Kura Pounamu exhibition (Te Papa Sept 2009 – mid-2011; China Nov 2012 – April 2014; and upcoming Paris 2017) has a display which shows different stages of transition from pounamu adze blade to finished hei tiki. It has been a popular exhibit with visitors:

From toki to tiki display, Kura Pounamu exhibition, National Museum of China, Beijing. Photo by D. Austin 30/10/2012
From toki to tiki display, Kura Pounamu exhibition, National Museum of China, Beijing. Photo by D. Austin 30/10/2012

Traditional stoneworker, Ānaru Rondon, and also pounamu authority, Russell Beck, both helped me with gaining insights into the relationship between hei tiki and the adze-like pounamu blanks or adze blades that hei tiki were made from.

It seems that when making hei tiki the lower end of a blank would have been ground down to make a sharpish bevel in order to reduce the thickness for working through the inner leg cavities. As a consequence partly finished hei tiki may look like they started out as adze blades even when they didn’t.

Hei tiki have long been observed to belong to two basic types.

The first and most common of these is relatively thick and deeply modelled with the head typically resting directly upon the shoulders and with both hands positioned to the thighs. This style typically has large eyes. It is known as Webster type I or alternatively Robley type A:

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), 1700-1850, New Zealand, maker unknown. Purchased 1907. Te Papa (ME001617)

The second and rarer type of hei tiki is typically thinner with features modelled in relatively shallow fashion. The head is raised with a definite neck and one hand is raised to the chest or mouth. The eyes are typically small. It is considered that on average about one in ten hei tiki are of this type. It is known as Webster type II or alternatively Robley type B:

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), 1700-1850, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of Charleston Museum, 1993; gift of Mr and Mrs Ashby Farrow to Charlston Museum, 1983. Te Papa (ME015639)

It has been argued that the common type I style of hei tiki is the most recent, with type II being earlier. However, another style of hei tiki with an upright vertical head has been credited with being the earliest pounamu hei tiki of them all. An example from Ruapekapeka in Northland with ‘abbreviated’ or in my opinion more likely snapped off legs was given as the type ‘specimen’:

Drawing of hei tiki with upright head from Ruapekapeka, Northland. From Skinner 1932.
Drawing of hei tiki with upright head from Ruapekapeka, Northland. From Skinner 1932.

But I think the earliest dated example of this style is the hei tiki from Doubtless Bay, Northland, which was drawn in 1769:

Drawing of hei tiki from Doubtless Bay, de Surville voyage, 1769
Drawing of hei tiki from Doubtless Bay, de Surville voyage, 1769

After considering the evidence underpinning the longstanding orthodox view of a lineage or sequence of development for hei tiki I came to the opinion that actually we don’t really know which style of hei tiki is the earliest. It seems more likely to me that the differences between the three main hei tiki styles, or types, probably have more to do with their belonging to different localised hapu or tribal styles than their position within a chronological sequence of development. The hei tiki with upright vertical head is most common in the North Auckland region. Hei tiki of type II configuration appear to be most common in the Bay of Plenty, Hawkes Bay, Whanganui and Taranaki districts. Curator at MTG Tryphena Cracknell encouraged me to look at their holdings of hei tiki and it was interesting to see that about a third of their collection was of the rarer type II style, reflecting the fact that this style is also more common in the Hawkes Bay region. The type I style of hei tiki appears to have been common in most if not all areas.

It is interesting how most of the above examples conform relatively closely to original wedge-shaped pieces of pounamu. Where they don’t, such as the hei tiki from Ruapekapeka, this can be explained by the fact that hei tiki makers were sometimes required to exert considerably more effort in working features away from original pieces of pounamu, in order to arrive at styles which were considered culturally appropriate and acceptable to their people.

I incline towards the view that the hei tiki fashion may have spread quite quickly throughout Aotearoa (Janet Davidson, Personal Correspondence, 2013) from a point of origin which may never be known. The impetus for the fashion taking hold and spreading quickly throughout many tribal areas can be attributed to the mana which would have been signified by possession of this prestigious new adornment. As the fashion took hold and spread it seems likely that a range of hei tiki styles would have appeared quickly in each locality in line with pre-existing local conventions for depicting the human figure, and often reflecting local wood carving traditions.

According to this view hei tiki styles continued to develop thereafter, but in less dramatic fashion. People often want to know which style is earliest. I say that isn’t really known, but pose the question: Does it really matter when we consider that the period between the appearance of the first hei tiki and the appearance of a multitude of styles may have been quite short?

In order to test these views I needed to take a fresh look at hei tiki. I decided that the existing style categories were inconsistent as indicators of original outline shape and were going to be of little use for making the kinds of observations I wanted to make. And then one day in one of those ‘This is so simple, why hasn’t anyone thought of it before?’ flashes of insight I came up with four shapes to use in my research:

Hei Tiki Shape Chart. Copyright D. Austin 2015
Hei Tiki Shape Chart. D. Austin 2015

The four shapes progress from most closely adze-shaped (Shape A) through to the hei tiki of oval outline (Shape D) which are furthest away from adze shapes, and possibly made from natural oval shaped pounamu stones. A ruler will touch at three points along each side of hei tiki belonging to Shape A ; at three and two points along each side of Shape B hei tiki; and at only two points on each side of hei tiki belonging to Shape C.

A collections-based research project looked at the features of several hei tiki from the early contact period 1769-1777 and compared their features with a general assemblage of 50 hei tiki from the Te Papa collection.

Adze-like A and B shapes of hei tiki were prevalent amongst the early contact assemblage and also the early hei tiki were shown to be highly developed stylistically, exhibiting a fairly full range of features common to hei tiki in general, and with standard proportions well established from early on. Shapes A,B, and C were common amongst the general Te Papa assemblage, but Shape D was comparatively rare, suggesting it may have become less common over time.

How I measured proportions of head, body and legs.
How I measured proportions of head, body and legs.

To access a fuller account of my research into hei tiki use this link to my thesis on the VUW research archives website:

Hei Tiki: He Whakamarama Hou

Research continues …

I am now carrying on with my research looking at a larger selection of 150 hei tiki in the Te Papa collection to see how well my observations hold up and to see if any new things can be discovered.


Some references

Austin, D., 2014. Hei Tiki: He whakamārama hou. M.A. thesis, Māori Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

Beck, R., with Mason, M., and Apse, A., 2010. Pounamu: the jade of New Zealand. North Shore, Auckland: Penguin Group (NZ).

Groube, L.M., 1967. A Note On The Hei-Tiki. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 76:453-458.

Neich, R., 1997. Pounamu: Maori Jade Of New Zealand. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd.

Skinner, H.D., 1916. Evolution in Maori Art. – Pendants. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 46:309-321.

Skinner, H.D., 1932. Maori Amulets in Stone, Bone, And Shell. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 41:202-211.

Skinner, H.D., 1940. The Maori Hei-Tiki. Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd. 1st edn.

Robley, H.G., 1915. Pounamu, Notes on New Zealand Greenstone. London: T.J.S. Guildford & Co. Ltd.

Tamarapa, A., 2002. Anaru Rondon in conversation with Awhina Tamarapa. In H. Smith (ed.), Taiāwhio Conversations With Contemporary Māori Artists. Wellington: Te Papa Press, pp.154-165.

Webster, K.A., 1948. The Armytage collection of Maori jade. London: Cable Press.


  1. Can you buy hei tiki as a souvenir?

  2. I have a family inherited hei tiki. I am not native but from Scotland. The story was it was given to a family member by a village as family member helped save village/island. I have no idea where this took place Or when. The hei tiki is large and I’d love to have some help identifying it. Thankyou, gray

    1. I would be glad to look at it and could tell you anything you want to know about it.

  3. Very interesting – I will never look at hei tiki the same way again 🙂

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