Mapping the Sāmoa Collections: How do you say ‘adze’ in Sāmoan?

Mapping the Sāmoa Collections: How do you say ‘adze’ in Sāmoan?

The ongoing project Mapping the Sāmoa Collections aims to learn more about the measina Sāmoa in our collection and make them more accessible to communities. As part of the project, research assistant Alexander Gordon has been tasked with making a glossary of Sāmoan vocabulary.

In the Sāmoa collections at Te Papa there are nearly 850 to‘i – adzes or axes – more than any other object.

The first to‘i arrived in the Dominion Museum (as Te Papa was known) in 1919. They were sent to Elsdon Best, the museum’s ethnologist, by James Fleck, a soldier in the New Zealand force that occupied the islands during World War One. Many of their letters still survive and give us insight into how they thought about these collections.

To‘i ma‘a (hafted stone adze), Sāmoa, maker unknown. Gift of James B. Fleck, 1919. Te Papa (FE001540)

Most of the to‘i in Te Papa, however, were donated by Rhys Richards in 1991. While he spent 12 months in Sāmoa in 1987 and 1988, local children helped Rhys to find and collect hundreds of to‘i. He categorised them and used the results to publish an article in the journal Archaeology in New Zealand in 1990. Our new collection mapping tool shows the many locations they were found across the islands of Sāmoa.

A screenshot of a map of Sāmoa with the sea surrounding it. There are red pins in several places on the islands. There is a pop-out chat box with a thumbnail picture of an adze and its corresponding link to the museum collections.
Rhys Richards collected to‘i from all over Sāmoa, seen here on the new object mapper created by our Collections Information team. Leaflet | © MapTiler © OpenStreetMap contributors

The mammoth task of measuring and photographing all these to‘i was undertaken by one of our hosts, Roger Rasmussen, from 2009 to 2011 (see our earlier blog post).

Since 1919, our cataloguing systems, the data we record and even the words we use to describe these objects have changed. This means that although our records are usually accurate, they are often inconsistent. For example, an adze might be labelled to‘i, to‘i fafao (hafted adze) or to‘i ma‘a (stone adze). Its English description might be “adze”, “stone adze”, “adze blade” or even “stone adze blade”. It’s hard to know which to search for! To reduce this ambiguity the first task of this project has been to create a glossary.

The Glossary

Using the correct Sāmoan words is important: it’s a way of giving mana to the creators of these objects. A glossary documents how vocabulary has changed over time and ensures that we are using the correct word. It will also make it much easier to search our catalogue!

So far, the glossary contains definitions for 150 words drawn from several different sources, which themselves tell a story of Sāmoa’s history:

In 1862 Reverend George Pratt, an English missionary in Sāmoa, published the first Sāmoan–English dictionary, intended to be used by students of both languages. Although its definitions are often short, it is very important as an early written record.

Dr Augustin Krämer, a surgeon-major in the Imperial German Navy, made several trips to the Pacific and wrote a monograph called Die Samoa Inseln (The Sāmoa Islands) with extensive assistance from the Sāmoan orator Tofā Sauni. Krämer intended to record Sāmoan culture and society to build what he called an “archive of the history of mankind”.

Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) was a Māori anthropologist and politician who was interested in Pacific Island cultures and their relationship to Māori. He spent several years conducting fieldwork in Sāmoa in the 1920s, and his book Samoan Material Culture was published in 1930 while he was working for the Bishop Museum in Hawai‘i.

What is now the standard Sāmoan dictionary was produced by George Milner in 1969. Milner trained and worked as a linguist at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. He published books on both Sāmoan and Fijian grammar based on fieldwork and in partnership with native speakers living in England.

Roger Neich was a New Zealand anthropologist and curator who worked at the National Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa’s forerunner), the Auckland Museum and the University of Auckland. He also undertook fieldwork in Sāmoa in 1980 and published a report on the Material Culture of Western Samoa in 1985.

A large woven mat with red trim at the top and red zig-zag patterns at the bottom with long tassles.
Fala lau‘ie, Apia, maker unknown. Purchased by Roger Neich in Sāmoa whilst doing research for his book in 1980. Te Papa (FE007790)

The largest and most recent dictionary was published by Dr Semisi Ma‘ia‘i in two volumes in 2010. Whilst working as a GP in 1989 Ma‘ia‘i published a glossary of Sāmoan medical terms. Over the next decades, this grew into a full dictionary. It is the first major dictionary of Sāmoan language to be written by a Sāmoan.

Together these books give us insight into how language and material culture have changed over 150 years.

The glossary will continue to grow over the course of this project as more sources are added and input is sought from the Sāmoan community. It will be a valuable resource for improving our records and making them more accessible to everyone.

Make the most of these resources yourself

Rhys Richards, On a surface collection of Western Samoan stone tools – NZ Archaeological Association (

George Pratt, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, with English and Samoan vocabulary | NZETC (

Te Rangi Hiroa, Samoan Material Culture | NZETC (

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