The Maori Preserved Heads That Were Used in Sacred Ceremonies But Also as Trade Items to Purchase Weapons

By | May 20, 2017

Mokomokai, the Maori preserved heads, are one of the most valuable artifacts of the indigenous people of New Zealand that survive to this day.

The preserved heads with faces decorated by tā moko tattooing (a traditional art form practiced by the Māoris), became valuable trade items during the Musket Wars of the early 19th century.

The markings represented high social status in Maori culture, and it was generally men who don the full facial moko, though high-ranked women often had moko on their lips and chins as well. When someone with moko died, the head would be preserved. First, the brain was extracted, the eyes removed and all orifices sealed with flax fibre and gum.

The head will then boiled or steamed in an oven before they're smoked over an open fire and dried in the sun for several days. Then, the preserved head would be treated with shark oil. This resulted to mummified heads or mokomokai, that would be kept by their families in ornately-carved boxes and brought out only for sacred ceremonies. Mokomokai can be also made from the heads of enemies and rival chiefs. Some heads were kept as trophies of war, some were sold to the Europeans, perhaps as a further insult to the fallen.

They were important in diplomatic negotiations between warring tribes, with the return and exchange of mokomokai being an essential precondition for peace.

During the Musket Wars (1807-1842) of the 19th century, they became valuable trade items, they began to produce Mokomokai from the heads of slaves and prisoners of war, sometimes tattooing them after death (though with meaningless motifs rather than genuine moko), in order to create items for trade.

In 1831, however, the Governor of New South Wales, General Sir Ralph Darling, issued a proclamation banning further trade in heads out of New Zealand.  The trafficking of heads continued, unfortunately.

One of the most prominent collectors Maori heads was Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley who decided to acquire as many examples of Mokomokai as possible, and at length built up a unique collection of 35 heads. He was interested in ethnology and fascinated by the art of tattooing as well as being a talented illustrator.

In 1908, Robley attempted to sell his collection to the New Zealand Government for £1,000. When the offer was declined, most of the collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, for the equivalent of £1,250.

More recently there has been a campaign to repatriate to New Zealand the hundreds of Mokomokai held in museums and private collections around the world.