Marks on the Landscape: Researching the Māori carvings at Gallipoli

Marks on the Landscape: Researching the Māori carvings at Gallipoli

[This article was originally published in Te Papa newsletter, Te Auahi Turoa newsletter (3 July 2015) and has been reproduced here.]

Kimihia, rangahaua, kei hea koutou ka ngaro nei?

Tēnā ka riro ki Paerau, ki te huinga o Matariki, ka oti atu koutou e!

Tangihia rā Te Ope Tuatahi i pae ki Karipori i te 3 o ngā rā o Hūrae i te tau 1915. E koro mā, tēnei Te Auahi Tūroa e mata kōkiri ana i te ipurangi, he kōrero ka horapa ki te mata o te rorohiko, he māramatanga ka tau atu ki ngā uri. Kei ngā Ika a Whiro, e kore koutou e warewaretia, moe mai rā, okioki rā e koro mā.

Kei ngā ariki, Kīngi Tūheitia, Te Ariki Tumu Te Heuheu, e rau rangatira mā, e ngā mātāwaka o te motu, tēnā tātou i Te Hokowhitu a Tūmatauenga. I te hanganga o te whakaaturanga Gallipoli: The scale of our war, ka kitea ētahi whakaahua o ngā whakairo ki Karipori. I kimihia, i rangahaua e Puawai Cairns o Ngāti Pūkenga, o Ngāti Ranginui, o Ngāiterangi ngā kōrero mō aua whakairo. Ko tēnei whakaputanga motuhake o Te Auahi Tūroa te hua o āna mahi:

100 years ago today, the Māori (Native) Contingent landed at Gallipoli. To commemorate this event, Puawai Cairns, Curator Māori Contemporary Culture, has written about the unique art work that members of the Māori Contingent carved into the landscape at Gallipoli, and which has been recreated for the exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The scale of our war’.

 Marks on the Landscape – researching the Māori carvings at Gallipoli
The Māori (Native) Contingent prepare to depart from New Zealand, February 1915. Alexander Turnbull Library

In the last edition of Te Auahi Turoa, I briefly explained the journey of the Māori Contingent to Gallipoli:

Te Ope Tuatahi were the first Māori volunteers to participate in World War I. Nearly 500 men from all over Aotearoa signed up for service and left the country aboard the troopship Warrimoo on Valentine’s Day 1915. They were originally intended for garrison duties such as road building and trench digging. After a delayed stay on Malta, they eventually landed on the shores of Anzac Cove on Gallipoli at around 1am on 3 July 1915.

Private Rikihana Carkeek vividly describes the day he and the Contingent landed:

At 1a.m. we arrived at last, and dropped anchor at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. You could hear the rifle shots way up in the hills, the first impression of real war, with the occasional boom of big guns from warships and the artillery. So this is war; what we’ve been working and training for so hard ever since we enlisted. We transhipped in batches on to steam launches and landed safely on the piers of Gallipoli under actual fire at last. We marched straight to our post through a long chain of trenches, or so it seemed in the dark. Just at dawn we arrived at our post and made the best of it in the rain – no dugouts or shelter of any description. Just in the open, digging in as best you can to avoid the rain. Real war at last and dinkum war conditions. Good luck![1]

The Māori Contingent joined the Gallipoli campaign as fresh reinforcements, energised and as yet unaffected by the disease and harsh living conditions which had plagued the men of the Anzac forces. The Medical Officer for the Māori Contingent, Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), noted:

‘Our men were fresh and strong, and they came as a godsend to do fatigue work connected with improving the trench defences and deepening the sap … to the various posts.’[2]

They were immediately given duties that required hard manual labour in hot, dry conditions, with scant water. This included working on an essential communication trench called the Big Sap (also called the Long Sap), which stretched from Anzac Cove near Ari Burnu out to No. 2 Outpost.[3]

Detective work

While I was researching Māori Gallipoli stories, I was intrigued by some special carvings the Māori Contingent made in the clay walls of the Big Sap. While the carvings now exist only as images in New Zealand and Australian archives, they have become iconic to the New Zealand presence at Gallipoli, and are reproduced in numerous history books.

Surprisingly, although the images have been reprinted multiple times, we know little about the carvings themselves. What we do know about them comes from piecing together material in archives, and from published histories of various soldiers or units. Take this image caption written by Fred Waite, an adjutant with the New Zealand Engineers, who published his account of Gallipoli in 1919:

Image 2
F Waite, The New Zealanders at Gallipoli, 1919

This carving appears to be one of a series etched into the Big Sap, at the point where it branched off to the No. 1 Outpost, also known as Māori Outpost. This outpost was the first position the Māori Contingent were assigned to when they landed.

Image 3
A carving in the rock along the main sap to ‘fisherman’s hut’, Gallipoli, 1915. Australian War Memorial

This image from the Australian War Memorial shows the same carving again, more clearly. We now also see there are words, KIA ORA NZ MAORIPAH, and a fist with an index finger pointing left carved alongside the figure. The men are Australian soldiers.

Image 4
Designs carved by Māori in a long sap, Gallipoli, July 1915. Australian War Memorial

This image and the next one are fascinating because they show that there were several carvings along a length of the Big Sap, not just one sole figure.

Image 5
Māori carving (left) and two soldiers (right) in a New Zealand trench known as the ‘Big Sap’, Gallipoli, June 1915. Australian War Memorial

In the image above, you can get a sense of the height of some of the carvings relative to the height of the Big Sap.

Image 6
‘Turn off to the Maori position in main sap to the outposts’ by Major LFS Hore, PXE 702-22, AIF Mitchell Library. State Library of New South Wales

This is another interesting image of the corner carving. The artist, Major LFS Hore, has written a short commentary below his sketch:

‘Their image + superstition. Gallipoli. Oct. 1915. Turn off to the Māori position in main sap to outposts. Carved in the clay bank. Colour of ?? grey brown. ?? sand in it.’

Recreating the carvings at Te Papa

These carvings offer a tantalising visual record of how the Māori soldiers retained their identity and cultural practices while in another land. I was determined to have the carvings recreated in Te Papa’s Gallipoli exhibition, and the astoundingly talented Weta Workshop team set about recreating them, using various archival records. What has been achieved is remarkable. One hundred years on from the war, visitors are now able to see the carvings up close, in an environment that evokes the trenches in which the Māori Contingent worked.

Recreation of Gallipoli carvings in the Te Papa exhibition. Photograph by Puawai Cairns, 2015. Te Papa


Recreation of Gallipoli carvings in the Te Papa exhibition. Photograph by Puawai Cairns, 2015. Te Papa


Image 8
Recreation of Gallipoli carvings. Photograph by Puawai Cairns, 2015. Te Papa


Image 9
Recreation of Gallipoli carvings. Photograph by Puawai Cairns, 2015. Te Papa

But who was the carver?

As we installed the carvings in the weeks leading up to the exhibition opening, we had scant information to accompany them. The carver had never been identified. Nor did we know exactly what the carvings depict. If you were to cast a carver’s eye over them, you could discern that they are likely of Te Arawa origin as they display Te Arawa regional style. So we could only assume the carver was from Rotorua, or nearby.

However, about a week before the opening, I browsed through various archives again, just out of interest. Many archives that held First World War material were constantly updating their digitised records. I happened to look through the Australian War Memorial records for the one hundredth time, and came across a digitised image I had not seen before. It was accompanied by a caption:

Image 10
‘Taratnoke [sic] and the man of the arawa [sic] tribe who carved it. Taratnoke was an ancestor of the carver and a famous chieftain who paddled a big war canoe and discovered New Zealand.’ Gallipoli, 1915. Collection of Major Charles L. Mason, British Army. Australian War Memorial
This was an exceptionally exciting moment! I finally had an image that identified one of the Māori soldiers as the carver of the figures, with caption information that confirmed him to be of Te Arawa tribal descent, and also suggested a name of one of the carved figures (‘Taratnoke’). I set about attempting to identify the man, and by a stroke of luck, after posting the image on my Facebook page, archivist Sarah Johnston (Ngāti Rākaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu) from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision contacted me about an audio recording that mentioned the carvings at Gallipoli.

Sarah sent the following transcript of the 1948 recording, in which two WWI veterans from Rotorua were interviewed:

25612 Mr. Thomas interviews Tuoro Akapita Pango, MBE. 1948

[The interviewer, Mr Thomas’ questions in English are translated into Māori by Mr Henry Te Reiwhati Vercoe.  Mr Tuoro Pango replies in Māori and then Mr Vercoe translates his reply into English.]

An interview about how Māori became so expert in carving: when it was first introduced;  carvings substituted for writing to tell history, teaching young people, explanation of carvings in the [unidentified] wharenui where the interview takes place;  the significance of the three fingers on carved figures etc.

In the introduction, Mr Thomas makes the following comment:

“Here is Tuoro Akapita Pango, M.B.E., the spokesman of the Arawa tribe and himself an artist of distinction.  When he was on Gallipoli he carved a figure on the side of a trench which was subsequently occupied by the 10th Australian Light Horse.  They say they were rather mystified when they saw the figure.”

The transcript allowed a number of clues to fall into place. It suggested that the Australian soldiers in the earlier images in this article could be members of the Australian Light Horse  (the Light Horse did take over position at No 1 outpost). I also knew that Henry Vercoe 16/161, who translated the interview, was a well-known decorated Māori Contingent / Māori Pioneer Battalion veteran, and was also a prominent kaumātua of Te Arawa.

However, the Arawa artist being interviewed, Tuoro Akapita Pango, was not listed in any army service records I could find. But I could not imagine a veteran such as Henry Vercoe fabricating someone’s service history, so the answer had to be that Tuoro Akapita Pango had enlisted under another name as a young soldier. It is a Māori custom for some people to accumulate multiple names during their lives.

Rifling through records, I managed to find a Private Mekiora Akapita 16/128  from Rotorua who served in the 1st Māori Contingent. He appeared to be the closest match, especially as he bore the name Akapita. So, armed with a contact that Sarah had given me and with the help of a member of Te Papa’s Iwi Relationships team who happened to come from Rotorua, we made contact with Kingi Biddle, a great grandson of Tuoro Akapita Pango. I needed confirmation that Tuoro Pango and Mekiora Akapita were the same person. Kingi emailed me back quickly and confirmed that yes indeed, those were two names that his koro went by.

The final piece of the puzzle was to confirm that the young man in the photograph from the Australian War Memorial was in fact Tuoro Akapita Pango / Mekiora Akapita. This final confirmation came in the form of a poignant email from Kingi’s sister, Lauren, who said she had spent an emotional afternoon gazing in wonderment at this image her koro as a young man.

Reconciling history

Just a few days before opening, we were able to extend an invitation to Lauren and her whanau to attend the pohiri and family preview of the exhibition.
Tuoro Akapita Pango, who served in the 1st Māori Contingent as Private Mekiora Akapita of Te Arawa waka, Ngāti Tarāwhai and Ngāti Whakaue, was now established as the carver of the figures at Gallipoli. We were able to reconcile this piece of history with his family’s presence at the opening day, and properly honour his work and contribution.

Image 11a
A great great grandson of Private Mekiora Akapita / Tuoro Akapita Pango, with the reproductions of his koro’s carvings. Photographed by Kate Whitley, April 2015. Te Papa


Image 12a
Lauren James, great granddaughter of Mekiora Akapita / Tuoro Akapita Pango, with family. Photographed by Kate Whitley, April 2015. Te Papa

This story is one of many from my time researching the Māori content for this exhibition, where family members of the soldiers, the persistence of archivists, and the heightened awareness that a centennial brings, have all met to restore the story of the Māori Contingent at Gallipoli. There are still research gaps to be filled around these carvings. For instance, what is the correct name of the tupuna in the carving (named ‘Taratnoke’ by the Australian soldier who photographed Private Akapita)? Did other men carve alongside Private Akapita? How did the men regard the carvings? At least we have one mystery solved for the moment.

Our sincere thanks to Kingi Biddle, Lauren James and family, Sarah Johnston from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, and Chrissie Locke.

E te toki whakairo o Ngāti Tarāwhai, o Ngāti Whakaue, o Te Arawa, hoki wairua mai. Nāu te one ki Karipori i whakairo, he tupuna, he tangata. I mau i te kāmera, he kanohi kitea, i hopukina tō reo, he hokinga mahara ki a koutou i tae atu ki te pae o te riri. He toi whakairo, he mana tangata.

[1] Carkeek, R. (2003). Home little Maori home: A memoir of the Maori Contingent, 1914-1916. Wellington, N.Z: Tōtika Publications.

[2] Condliffe, J. B. (1971). Te Rangi Hiroa: The life of Sir Peter Buck. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs. P. 129-130

[3] Waite, F. (1919). The New Zealanders at Gallipoli. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs. P. 331


  1. I appreciate this report on my koro Tuoro Akapita Pango as I was not aware of this carving or that this is a picture of him beside the carving that he had done.
    I am aware of my nephews knowledge of our koro and am totally stoked to see how these tidbits of information has led to this information being shared at this time.
    The use of the 2 names he used, now helps me better understand why he had these names.. I was not aware that my koro went to war, so this information gives me another perspective of who he was. So proud of him. Thank you once again.

    1. Author

      Thank you for leaving that message. I am glad this story is now back in circulation and your koro’s achievements are acknowledged during the WW100 commemorations. Ngā mihi nunui ki a koe, koutou tō whānau

  2. Kia ora Puawai

    If you could send me your email address, I would forward the Sikh post

    Nga mihi

    Ian Free

  3. Kia ora, Puawai
    This is a great post! Thank you so much!

    Very informative and moving. It gives the lie to any claim that museum work is dry and dusty!

    May I express my thanks by forwarding a post I received only today from a Swedish friend who shares my extreme distaste for the unfair and uninformed treatment suffered by so many soldiers, so frequently commanded by people who were ignorant of the fine qualities of the men under them. This post is about Indians, mostly Sikhs on the Western Front, but that is where some of my Pakeha ancestors served. The similarities with Maori serving there are strong.

    Keep up the good work! Kia Kaha!


    1. Kia ora Puawai
      It was great to read about this and your amazing research. I would like to think we can tell this story at Rotorua Museum sometime and help share it with Te Arawa. Nga mihi nui – thank you for sharing it. Pamela Lovis

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