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Tattooed Maori head

Tattooed Maori head returns to New Zealand from British Museum

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It’s not every day that someone receives a tattooed mummified head as a gift, but this is exactly what happened when Maori elders and New Zealand officials met with officials from Guernsey museum in Britain.

The Toi moko, as it is known, is the decapitated head of an important Maori chief or warrior which has been mummified and which is tattooed over the entire face, reflecting the individual’s high status.  The circumstances in which the head was decapitated are not known. However, Dr Jason Monaghan, director of Guernsey Museum said: “if you attacked a neighbouring tribe you would steal their heads during the battle and you might return them as a part of the peace treaty.”

Toi moko is one of more than 800 Maori ancestors traded for muskets and European goods in a practice that was made illegal in 1831, but which continued for more than 100 years after. Now, the head and 12 other Maori remains will be returned to New Zealand.

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. They originated with settlers from eastern Polynesia, who are thought to have arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages at some time between 1250 and 1300 CE.  Over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers developed a unique culture that became known as the "Māori", with their own language, a rich mythology, distinctive crafts and performing arts. Early Māori formed tribal groups, based on eastern Polynesian social customs and organisation.

During the handover of the head, which took place in a ceremony at Castle Cornet, Maori elders played music, chanted and blew a conch shell, which according to their tradition was a way of informing the individual at a spiritual level that he will soon be returning home.

"They have a spiritual connection to our country and they should be returned so both their spirit and their life force is united with our part of the world,” said Te Herekiekie Herewini, manager for repatriation for New Zealand’s national museum. "The Maori believe people should be buried in their home earth so having this very important person on the other side of the world is actually quite upsetting."

Once the head arrives back in New Zealand, it will be kept in a special repository until its tribal link is established, at which point the remains will be reburied by the relevant tribe.

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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