Currently reading : A (Sort of) Brief History of Mokomokai

A (Sort of) Brief History of Mokomokai

8 July 2014

Author : julia-silverman

HG Robley with his collection by Harry Stevens, via Wellcome Images
HG Robley with his collection by Harry Stevens, via Wellcome Images

Mokomokai are the severed heads of Maori tribesmen covered in tā moko, traditional Maori chiseled “tattoos.” Unlike the tattoos in other cultures, ta moko was often carved into the flesh with pigment applied to the wound. This resulted in three-dimensional, scarred designs. These heads, although quite interesting in themselves, have an incredible history, transitioning from tribal and spiritual objects to curios, and now to museum artifacts with dubious acquisition histories.

Although the exact meaning and purpose of the tattoos cannot be adequately unpacked here, suffice it to say they were important; different sources have linked the tattoos to written names, markers of prominence, and lifelong companions. [1] When a person with a full facial markings died, his face was often preserved and stored by the person’s family in an ornate box, later being brought out for religious ceremonies.

Example - Source Unknown

After the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand in the late 18th Century, the Mokomokai began acquiring a new status as curios. The first traded head is said to have been acquired by Captain James Cook in 1770, and shortly thereafter, Mokomokai became extraordinarily popular as currency for Western firearms in an “arms race” between warring tribes. At one point, demand for the heads was so great that Europeans were able to barter for them before their original wearers had been killed. A 1990 text by Abraham Joseph Wharewaka claims that slaves and war criminals (from rival tribes) would be dragged onboard ships so that patrons could decide on a head in advance.

This commercial success changed the practice of tā moko entirely; while traditionally, the markings were often applied to people of some prominence within a tribe, the tattoos were now applied for the purpose of sale, even sometimes after the recipient’s death. [2] Some sources indicate that in these sold heads, traditional incising practices were abandoned for the poking methods traditionally associated with tattoo, leaving completely different types of scars. Finally in 1831, the import of human heads was banned by the British goverment, and so began the exchange’s decline. By the 1840s, the practice of tā moko was declining as a whole.


Ta Moko drawing by H.G. Robley, via Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Ta Moko drawing by H.G. Robley, via Encyclopedia of New Zealand


Now these heads are point objects in discussions of collection practices, colonialism, and ownership. The collection of Horatio Gordon Robley, an artist and soldier who travelled to Auckland in 1864, serves as a prime example. Completely enamored with the Maori tattoo designs, Robley completed detailed sketches of them, and ultimately amassed a collection of over 30 tattooed heads. (He later claimed that the practice of head trading was “repulsive to [Maori] instincts and which they only adopted as a desperate measure to preserve their tribes from annihilation.”) After unsuccessfully trying to sell them back to the New Zealand government in the early 1900s, he ultimately sold them for £1,250 to the American Museum of Natural History, where they remain today out of public view. (Given the sacred nature of these objects, many sources from NZ discourage their being shown to the public. That said, the AMNH also doesn’t provide ANY information about the collection on their site. The only thing I found was New Acquisitions catalogue from 1909, which explained the collection.)

These objects are just some examples in a larger debate about acquired tribal artifacts and their proper ownership. Since the late 1980s, New Zealand has been trying to reclaim Mokomokai from the several museums who have acquired them from their original collectors. [3] Spearheaded by New Zealand’s Te Papa Museum, the initiative attempts to match heads with their tribal owners so that they may serve an initial purpose of allowing the dead to find their ancestral homeland. Of course, this notion is deeply complex, given that many of these heads are hardly traditional. Then again, in sparks debate over the notion of human remains as property, which is deeply controversial itself.

AMNH Acquisitions page 1AMNH Acquisitions page 2AMHN Acquisitions, page 3

To sum up, this example really struck a chord with me. Not only is the switch from religious artifact to curiosity to commodity completely intriguing, but I think these objects begin to address the complicated nature of “traditional” practices… how should we treat market-driven “souvenirs” when we think about tradition? All food for thought…


[To read more, I highly suggest the Library of the University of Wellington Victoria, which generously makes portions of the New Zealand Text Collection available for public use. That said, this database does not allow for the publication of images of Mokomokai, an equally frustrating and interesting rule…]


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