By Deborah Harding
Hei-tiki figurines made by the Maori people of New Zealand have had several origins and meanings attributed to them over the years. It may refer to the First Man, Tiki; some have speculated that the curious proportions are those of an unborn child.
Tikis are carved in stone and wood, in various sizes. The hei-tikis are designed to be worn around the neck. Originally carved very laboriously from hard greenstone, modern versions are also made in plastic and other materials for the tourist trade. The eye rings were often filled with red sealing wax.
Our hei-tiki came to us from the collection of Charles Spang, a manufacturer from Etna. He collected it probably in the mid-19thcentury, and his collection was later donated by his children in 1906. Unfortunately, the arms and legs are broken off.
About ten years ago, a Maori visitor to the collections remarked with surprise on the presence of the braided neck cord. Evidently it is rare to find the cord still intact. He couldn’t tell us what the fiber was, but it’s done in a 16-strand round braid.
Deborah Harding is the collection manager of the Section of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.