Feather boxes

Maori, 18th century AD
From New Zealand, Polynesia

Carved boxes such as these were used to store personal ornaments and valuables. They are often referred to as feather boxes, as the ornaments included the black and white tail feathers of the huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) worn as a hair decoration. Earlier boxes are usually more elaborately decorated on the underside, the most visible part when suspended from the rafters of homes.

These two examples illustrate the two main shapes of these boxes:

The oval wakahuia (NZ 113: back) is coated with red ochre and has carved decoration of a style associated with the area of Wanganui. The lid is painted with red ochre and black pigment in abstract, curvilinear patterns, in a style known as kowhaiwhai of the area of Poverty Bay on the east coast of North Island.

The rectangular papahou (NZ 109: front) has a flat base, and is elaborately carved on all external surfaces in a style associated with the Bay of Islands area of the north of New Zealand. The carving on the sides and base incorporates manaia figures, depicting the face, and sometimes the body, in profile, a common motif in Maori art. The box retains its original plaited flax cord, attached diagonally to hold the lid in position.

Maori treasure boxes became popular with Europeans in the nineteenth century, who began to collect them. European influence led to changes; the boxes became larger with more ornamentation, and the bases became flatter so they could stand steadily. Contemporary versions of treasure boxes are being produced. The British Museum recently acquired an example carved by the Maori artist Lyonel Grant.

Find in the collection online

More information


D.C. Starzecka (ed.), Maori art and culture, 2nd ed. (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)

A.L. Kaeppler, Artificial Curiosities: being (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1978)

R. Neich, Painted histories: early Maori (Auckland University Press, 1993)


Length: 65.000 cm (oblong box)
Length: 65.000 cm (oblong box)

Museum number

AOA NZ 113 (oval box);AOA NZ 109 (oblong box)


Collected on the voyages of Captain James Cook


Find in the collection online

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore