I have found that studying patterns of wear on hei tiki can be quite revealing.
Most hei tiki are made from nephrite pounamu, one of the toughest and most durable natural materials in existence. This being so I think we can safely assume that surface wear on hei tiki didn’t happen overnight. This wear indicates prolonged use over a significant period of time.
I have found that interpretation of wear patterns can sometimes reveal some of the history of use of hei tiki, suggesting ways in which they were worn and handled by their owners.
Perhaps the most obvious wear to hei tiki is the wear to suspension holes. On many hei tiki the original holes have worn through and replacement holes have been made. An example:
Photo showing evidence of multiple holes.
A great deal of attention seems to have been paid to the attachment of kaui or suspension cords. Separate lashings were lashed tightly to the cord in a manner which eliminated or reduced abrasive movement of the lashings inside the hole:
Detail of cord attachment; Back of head.
The extent to which loose cord attachments were left before being replaced is one of the variables responsible for the rate of wear. Another variable is the relative toughness of the pieces of pounamu from which the hei tiki were made.
The original holes appear to have been carefully positioned for balance. And they were drilled mostly from the back and angled so that they emerged in concealed or inconspicuous manner at the top edge of the head, or perhaps just above/behind an enlarged upper brow. It seems that efforts to protect original holes were made with good reason. Replacement holes had to be positioned where-ever they could be. They were often drilled straight through the head in a conspicuous and quite disfiguring manner, such as right through an eye:
Hei tiki with replacement hole drilled through eye groove.
An alternative to making replacement holes was to switch to using one of the arm cavities for suspension and hanging the hei tiki sideways. Wear to one of the arm cavities suggests such use. The arm used for horizontal suspension is always on the side which allows the angled head to face the right way up – never the other way around.
Hei tiki showing wear to upper arm.
I have noticed that surface wear is usually most evident on the front of hei tiki around the mid part of the face. This is where fine details – such as those of the nose – have typically been lightly incised and these details are therefore more susceptible to being obliterated by wear. Such wear is more obvious than a similar amount of wear to more heavily worked and robust features – such as deeply formed ribs – which may retain their features despite being worn.
I think that much of this type of frontal wear probably resulted from wearers habitually enjoying handling and rubbing their hei tiki. The extent to which wearers formed a habit of doing this is another variable responsible for the rate of wear. This is one of the most highly worn hei tiki in Te Papa’s collection:
A much treasured and highly worn hei tiki.
By systematically examining and estimating the extent of wear to a large number of hei tiki I noticed that there is a trend towards the smaller hei tiki being more highly worn than larger examples. While there is much variation, on average the smaller the hei tiki the more highly worn they tend to be. Conversely, on average the larger the hei tiki the less worn they tend to be, suggesting they are of more recent origin. This observation provides supporting evidence for the view that hei tiki gradually became larger over time, replicating a similar trend in wood carving.
Trade hei tiki, exceptionally large at 170mm long.
An interesting thing about the above hei tiki is its complete lack of wear. When I examined the surface closely I could make out numerous small marks, which appear to be original working marks from when the hei tiki was first crafted. The fact they can still be seen indicates this hei tiki probably hasn’t been worn and that it probably entered into a collection soon after it was made. Most telling is the hole which appears to contain some dried remnants of the original muddy reside made from when the hole was drilled. The hole also still has a sharp edge in the mid-section where drilling from each side met together. A final piece of rasping out work is needed to make this hole smooth and suitable for being lashed to a suspension cord. Altogether there is enough evidence to conclude that this hei tiki has never been worn and that it was probably made specifically as a trade item to satisfy European demand. Its impressive size and detailed features would make it highly collectable.
However, in my opinion most hei tiki possess sufficient wear to suggest that the above hei tiki is an exception rather than the rule. Wear patterns suggest that making hei tiki specifically for trade appears to have been much less common than making them for traditional use within Māori communities. Surface wear is a reflection of the ancestral mana of these prized adornments accumulated over generations of use. Even though their individual histories may now be unknown, use wear can help authenticate hei tiki as taonga tuku iho.