The Motunui epa are a set of intricately carved panels created by Te Ātiawa carvers sometime between 1750 and 1820. After a long and colourful history, the taonga were finally returned to Taranaki and are now safely on display at New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki Museum.
Viewers often ask the same two questions: how old are they and what tools were used to make them?
“No-one really knows for sure how old the they are,” says Glen Skipper (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tawhirikura), Puke Ariki’s Poutiaki Taonga/Māori treasures curator.
“We could carbon date them but there’s no point because we’ll see old the trees are, not the art. Some trees are already hundreds of years old when they’re cut down to be carved.”
Starting with a question
The second question inspired Kelvin Day, Puke Ariki’s Tumuaki (Director), to set up a carving experiment comparing pounamu and metal tools. This might also shed light on the panels’ age since metal was only used after Europeans had arrived in Aotearoa.
Kelvin invited students from Manukōrihi Intermediate School in Waitara to have a go themselves as well as learn about the science, craft and heritage of carving.
The students have a special connection with the epa because they took part in the repatriation ceremony last year. Their school is also close to the wetlands where the epa had been hidden from pillaging enemies before being rediscovered in 1971.
Alongside Kelvin and Glen (also a carver and artist), the students received guidance from Master Carver Hemi Sundgren (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Raukawa), blacksmith Dave Trinder and Russell Beck, artist and former director of Southland Museum.
From science to art
The weekend-long experiment began with Russell showing the students the science behind pounamu, as well as how to shape the stone.
“Nephrite, the geological name for pounamu, is very strong,” Russell explains. “This is because it contains microscopic needles of tremolite, a green form of iron. No other rock has this structure.”
The rest of the two days was a cacophony of banging as adzes hit wood and mallets hit chisels.
By Saturday afternoon, the pieces had already begun to take their three-dimensional shape.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to carve and do the hands-on work,” says 13-year-old Ael.
Nia, 13, adds, “I liked learning how to use the tools to carve, and carve the tools we were using.”
Jack, 13, gave a third thumbs-up: “I think this is really special because I learnt how we can use pounamu to carve.”
A challenge for everyone
The carving was also a learning curve for the seasoned artists.
“What I experienced is that using pounamu needs more force to push the chisel through the wood,” Hemi tells us. “I think this is due to the thicker blade and edge, which is needed so that the edges don’t break or chip out – although this did happen a few times.”
At the end of the weekend, the carvings had emerged as rough cuts with some detail, but had not yet reached the stage where the finer, more intricate work could be tested.
“We simply ran out of time on Sunday”, Kelvin says. “And as the work progressed, it started throwing up more questions than answers.”
Was it pounamu?
Glen and Hemi tell us that, so far, the pounamu is equally as effective as the metal chisels they use in their other work.
Although the jury is still out, Glen thinks the pounamu might come out on top because he found it much easier and more versatile to use than metal.
Hemi cautions: “When we do the detailed work with the pounamu there will be a risk that the wood might 'sponge' up from the extra force, which I saw happen on the smaller pieces that others were carving.
“I think it’s highly likely that the pounamu tools can achieve the detail we want, but only with thinner, sharper blades. Without having the chance to really test these blades, though, this remains inconclusive for me.”
Hemi, Glen and Kelvin are continuing the experiment, using finer pounamu blades made by Russell, which they hope will reveal a more definitive answer.
Watch Puke Ariki's video about the project:
About the project
This project is being supported by funding from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform (PSP) managed by Venture Taranaki.