Maori treasure box, papahou

North Island of New Zealand
Late 18th century

Wooden box with carved figures in sexual poses

This is a Māori treasure box known as a papahou, a type made in the northern regions of New Zealand.  It has a flat, rectangular form, compared with the more common wakahuia, a ‘canoe-shaped’ treasure box. 

Treasure boxes were made to carry the precious personal ornaments of a high-ranking person, such as feathers worn in the hair (sometimes of the huia bird), decorative combs, and particularly prized pounamu (nephrite) ear and neck ornaments. 

A chief’s person, his ornaments and clothing included, were considered to be highly tapu – they had a sacred or divine quality, which could cause misfortune or death if not properly managed.  For this reason, ornaments were stored in decorated boxes, suspended from the ceiling rafters inside houses, out of easy reach.

An array of male and female figures adorn this papahou, interlinked in sexual poses.  Wakahuia and papahou often show figures engaged in sexual liaisons, but this example is particularly graphic. The vulva of one of the female figures is inlaid with a small piece of pounamu, and the lid also has a small piece of pāua shell inlay, which is relatively rare.  

While treasure boxes often exemplify a particular tribal style and preference for certain relief patterns, Māori carvers are noted for the creation of unique compositions. 

It is arguable that the design of smaller personal objects allowed the carver a greater freedom of expression than larger, collective endeavours such as the carving of a meeting house.  Larger architectural carvings featuring male figures with prominent genitalia often had them removed when collected by Europeans.

T Barrow, An illustrated guide to Maori art.  (Auckland, New Zealand, Methuen, 1994)

R Neich, Carved histories : Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai woodcarving, (Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2001)

DC Starzecka (ed), Maori art and culture, (London, British Museum Press, 1996)

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Height: 9.4 cm
Length: 43 cm
Depth 9.8 cm

Museum number

Oc1964,05.1.a (box) / Oc1964,05.1.b (lid)

Donated by Mrs Geoffrey W Russell, previously owned by Mrs Mary Pye.


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