Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Length: 13.800 cm
Gift of Henry Christy
AOA ST 825
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Nephrite pendant (hei tiki)
Maori, probably 18th or early 19th century
From New Zealand, Polynesia
Pendants of this type are known in Maori as hei tiki, commonly shortened to tiki. Hei means something suspended from the neck, and tiki is the name applied to all human figures. The precise significance of the tiki is unclear, though there are many theories, including that they promote fertility, represent a human embryo or the act of childbirth.
Tiki are worn by women and men, and are highly treasured as personal ornaments; they are regarded as heirlooms to be passed from generation to generation. Some are given personal names.
Tiki are superficially similar in appearance. It is thought that the earliest examples were made in bone, ivory or wood. The majority are made from nephrite, known to the Maori as pounamu, a form of jade which is found on South Island. The figures are either sexless, or female as indicated by the presence of a vulva. One variety of tiki is symmetrical in form. The legs are open, and footless. A few examples show a hand touching the head. The more common form, as in this example, shows the head tilting to the right or left. The eyes are often inlaid with rings of paua (haliotis) shell, later post-contact examples often had eyes of red sealing wax. The plaited flax suspension cord was secured with a bone toggle. The perforation is normally at the top of the head, sometimes the original hole has worn through and a second hole has been drilled. Sometimes women wore tiki horizontally, the cord being attached to an arm or leg hole.
Tiki were seen and collected by Captain Cook's crew, but their popularity with Maori as an ornament increased in the nineteenth century. The widespread adoption of metal carving tools in the early nineteenth century resulted in a quantity of nephrite adze blades which could be re-carved as ornaments. This example may be a converted adze. Maori artists continue to produce a variety of nephrite ornaments, including tiki.
D.C. Starzecka (ed.), Maori art and culture, 2nd ed. (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)
R. Neich, Pounamu: Maori jade of New Zea (David Bateman in association with Auckland Museum, 1997)