Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
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– 194 –

Use of Coffins and Small Elevated Huts.

We have seen that the remains of Tama-a-mutu were placed in a box or coffin for burial. This custom was sometimes practised in former times. Bodies of the dead were put in a rough wooden box or coffin made of slabs of timber hewn out with stone axes. This would be placed on the top of a high post near the settlement, and when the flesh was decayed the bones would be taken to a burial tree or cave. Perhaps the most common method was a small erection, like a miniature house, built on the top of a high post. These were often erected within the fortified settlements of the Natives in Pre-European days. We notice them in illustrations of such villages as left us by early travellers and settlers. These places within the village seem to have been used to place the bones of the dead in. The keeping of the decomposing bodies in their midst in such a manner would be somewhat too much, even for a Maori.

Coffins were sometimes constructed in the form of a canoe, from perhaps 3 ft. to 6 ft. in length. These were hewn out of wood, and were ofttimes ornamented with carving. Lids, neatly fitting, were made for them. Some very interesting and ancient specimens may be seen in the Auckland Museum. These singular coffins were used as receptacles for the bones of the dead after disinterment. They were usually placed in burial-caves, situate in secluded places. These coffins would usually be daubed with red ochre. The discoverer of the coffins above mentioned states, “The first cave contained some tons of skeletons, and several wooden images of different sizes engraved from head to toe. The largest image is about 6 ft. in length, the head and legs taking up no more than 2 ft. of the length. Each image has a hollow body with a lid for the back, and had previously been filled with bones, the lid being tied on with a kind of forest-creeper.”

William's “Maori Dictionary” gives “pouraka”, receptacle for a dead body, in shape like a square box, thatched over the top.”

– 195 –

An illustration of one of these bone-coffins is given in Hamilton's “Maori Art,” p. 159, where may also be seen illustrations of the handsomely carved slabs of wood erected over a chief's grave. Some fine carved slabs of totara wood, about 3 ft. in width, are still standing in the old fort of Mana-te-pa, at Rua-tahuna. They were erected over the graves of those Natives who were shot there about the year 1842.