Looking at Hei Tiki – Wear Patterns

Looking at Hei Tiki – Wear Patterns

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:

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), New Zealand, maker unknown. Purchased 1979. Te Papa (ME014129)
Hei tiki (pendant in human form), New Zealand, maker unknown. Purchased 1979. Te Papa (ME014129)

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:

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), New Zealand, maker unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000685)
Hei tiki (pendant in human form), New Zealand, maker unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000685)

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 (pendant in human form), 1600-1850, New Zealand, maker unknown. Oldman Collection. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000486)

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 (pendant in human form), 1600-1850, Waipiro Bay, maker unknown. Purchased 1972. Te Papa (ME012716)

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:

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), 1700-1850, New Zealand, maker unknown. Purchased 1973. Te Papa (ME012898)

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.

Hei tiki (pendant in human form), 1800-1900, maker unknown. Gift of Alexander Turnbull, 1913. Te Papa (ME002971)

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.



  1. Dougal , Hamish Walsh here ( formerly of Dunbar’s now Itinerate buyer ) just purchased a piece in chch this week I’d like to show you images , having handled many Taonga haven’t seen one of these .

  2. Kia ora Mr Austin, very interesting knowledge you have of our Hei Tiki. I have just finished carving a Tiki Pounamu and found it extremely difficult to carve with modern technology. The mind boggles with the idea that our Tupuna were carving these Taonga out back in pre European days. There’s a You Tube video I watch a year ago called Skeletons in the cupboard by Gabi Plumm which gave an interesting look on a possible timeline for the Hei Tiki.

  3. Kia ora,
    Dougal Austin,Thanks for a interesting and informative article,as expert opinion is needed,when purchasing authentic Hei tiki.
    I have recently purchased one,in the UK,that came from a charm bracelet,that was said to be possibly from the 1940’s,so I shall examine it carefully after reading your article. Incidently I bought my first tiki in Auckland in 1971 and note now that 50year old tiki’s need a Y certificate to trade,is that so? as ideally,I would like to purchase an older Hei Tiki for it’s spiritual ambience ,any suggestions on where to look? Best Wishes,steve

    1. Kia ora Steve,
      Y-certificate registration is needed for trading hei tiki 50 years or older in New Zealand, – but only if they qualify as taonga tuturu. It sounds like your ‘charm bracelet’ tiki is probably of non-Māori make and with no Māori use. If so it wouldn’t need registration to be traded. You can access more details on the Ministry for Culture & Heritage website: http://www.mch.govt.nz/nz-identity-heritage/protected-objects/taongatuturu

  4. A Suprisingly Good Piece,
    For A Te Papa Curator.
    Maybe The World Has, Indeed, Turned.

    1. Author

      Kia ora Richard,

      I’m glad you liked it. Nice to be doing my little bit towards our museum vision statement of ‘Changing Hearts, Changing Minds’


  5. Very interesting article- Seven years ago I meet an Indian man buying and selling ponamu he frequently visited all the auction houses where these rare and important cultural artifacts were being sold. He invited me to watch him buy a piece for over $10,000 – he keeps them in a safe deposit, after a few meetings as he knew I have been a craftsman for 20 years he shared that he studied ponamu like a forensic scientist- each and every piece so that he could “replicate hei tiki pieces” and in a few years put them back on the market. I understand this is not ‘new” knowledge-but alarming and I am elated to know the extent of examination you are doing.

    1. Author

      Kia ora Pearce, We have a number of ‘replica’ hei tiki here in the collection, almost all of which were crafted with non-traditional tools of European origin, and wear patterns attest that some have also been worn. However, most are fairly easy to identify taking into account not only wear patterns but also a range of other things. These include differences you get using non-traditional tools as well as the overall standard of the work. Abrasive stone tools used by Maori to shape hei tiki wore away themselves during the shaping process leading to smooth contours and a general lack of sharp edges. Also most people will find hei tiki difficult enough to draw let alone to shape in three dimensions. So non-Maori work generally is not executed to the same standard. It has been said that only ‘tohunga whakairo’ or expert craftsmen made hei tiki, these pendants being the most challenging to make of all the taonga ‘treasures’ worked from pounamu.

  6. He patai! Are these made by Maori or the sealers and whalers.? How can you tell the difference?

    1. Author

      Kia ora Leone, I think if the sealers and whalers made some hei tiki they would more likely have taken the easier option of working them from the likes of whale tooth ivory or whalebone, than from pounamu, which is extremely tough and challenging to work. Most non-Maori hei tiki were made after the sealing and whaling eras. Many ‘replica’ hei tiki were made from the late 1800s onwards in lapidary workshops based in cities, or towns as they may have been then, such as Dunedin or Auckland. These workshops employed large rotating stone cutting saws and the like and made a range of items including ‘replica’ hei tiki and mere for both the tourist trade and also to sell to Maori clients. One of the first things we take a close look at when examining a hei tiki is to look at how the holes have been made. Maori craftsmen drilled through from each side using pirori cord drills with stone bits and the frequent application of water and abrasive grit. After many hours of work the result was a hole of ‘hour-glass’ shape narrowing down considerably in the middle. Sometimes the Pakeha stone workers bevelled the holes in an attempt to replicate traditional holes, but usually the centre part remains drilled straight through revealing what has been done. It’s the cumulative presence or absence of a range of indicators which point to authenticity. This is just one of those indicators. I don’t want to give away all of our secrets so will stop there. D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *