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Maori Storehouses and Kindred Structures

1. Semi-Subterranean Stores on Level Land

1. Semi-Subterranean Stores on Level Land

The only form of Maori store that has been made prominent in published accounts of Maori life is the highly adorned pataka or elevated house-like store. It is well to again mention that these ornate buildings were not only not used as places of storage for crops, but that very few of such places were seen in native villages. A Maori hamlet in pre-European times might contain one such building, many of them did not possess one, and few could boast of several. On the other hand, the common, plain, unadorned pataka were much more numerous, and each family might aim to possess one such.

But the most numerous items coming under the head of "storage-places" were certainly pit stores, semi and wholly subterranean, as also elevated platforms with no building erected thereon. These excavated storage-places were a truly remarkable feature in Maori village life, and the places wherein their main crop was stored. These places are not ornate structures, and have never been thoroughly described, having possibly been looked upon as being of too humble and non-striking a nature to call for any special remark. But they were the most useful of all native stores, and hence are herein described with detail that may seem tedious to the reader. The common, unadorned, or slightly ornamented pataka or whata was used for the storage of certain food products and for miscellaneous items, but the heavily carved pataka was a rara avis, and can scarcely be described as a food-store.

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The style of rua now under discussion may be termed semi-subterranean, inasmuch as it was made by excavating earth (on level ground) to a depth of 3 ft., and sometimes 4 ft. or 5 ft. This excavation was of an oblong form, and was covered with a Inverted V shape -shaped roof. In some cases the earth walls were lined inside with slabs of wood, or, when procurable, slabs cut from the trunks of tree-ferns. When the smaller stems of such species as Dicksonia squarrosa were so used they were simply "flatted" on two sides. Larger stems could be split down the middle. But the most highly prized species for such work is the wheki-ponga or pu-nui (Dicksonia fibrosa). The thick trunks of this species are, as Mr. Cheeseman describes, "everywhere thickly coated with matted fibrous aerial rootlets, giving it a diameter when mature of from 1 ft. to 2 ft." These thick trunks furnish fine broad slabs for the lining of the walls or roof of the food-pits. Such pieces are sliced off the trunk of a desired length, and, as the peculiar material does not break easily, are easily conveyed from a distance to the place where they are to be used, without suffering any injury. This material is preferred to ordinary timber for such covering purposes, for the reason that it withstands the attacks of marauding rats, which creature does not seem able to penetrate it. We have often noticed in the forest attenuated-looking trunks of this tree-fern carved into curious forms, where natives have been hewing off slabs of the fibrous material. When a food-pit was roofed with this material it really served as a lining to such roof, being covered with a roof of thatch or bark, which is a durable material and a good water-shedder.

When travelling from Rua-tahuna to Te Whaiti in January, 1842, Mr. Colenso descended the Okahu Stream, and remarks in his journal, "On the banks of this river I also saw specimens of a fine arborescent fern (Dicksonia fibrosa) which attains the height of 18 ft.; its caudex is very bulky, and is composed of thick layers of fibres, resembling at first sight the fibrous interior of the husk of a coconut. The trunks of the larger ones were grotesquely hewn by the natives into all manner of uncommon shapes, in their cutting away the fibrous outside for the purposes of planks for their houses and stores, it being more easily worked than wood, and forming a better defence against rats."

Angas remarks that the roots of tree-ferns "are used by the natives to cover over the entrances to their potato-stores: these are sunk in the ground, the porous nature of the root imbibing the superabundant moisture from above." It is doubtful if the roots of tree-ferns were ever much used for this purpose, unless aerial roots are meant.

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The bark of the kahikatoa or manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is much prized for this purpose. It is very durable and easily accommodated to any form of roof, while the natives possess the knack of arranging it on a roof in a very neat manner. Bark is kept in place on a roof by placing poles on it, such poles being lashed to the framework at the ends of the hut.

These stores were made in many sizes up to 25 ft. in length, and even longer. Favoured situations for them were near the edge of a terrace or on the summit of a spur, such places being better drained than others. Near some of the old fortified villages rows of such storehouses have been made on convenient ridges. There is a row of about nine on a ridge near the old Haukapua pa at Rua-toki, some of which are nearly 30 ft. in length. Of course, nothing but the excavations are left, all sign of woodwork having perished long ago, but some of these excavations are now 5 ft. below the level of the adjacent land. Hence one descended several steps in going down into such places.

The end walls were made in a similar manner to side walls, preferably of slabs of tree-ferns. In many cases the roof was covered with earth.

Fig. 42. A Rua Kai or Food-pit, East Coast.

Fig. 42. A Rua Kai or Food-pit, East Coast.

Most of the larger or more famous storehouses, both semi-subterranean and pataka or raised stores, received special names, as dwellinghouses did. Thus famed stores of the Tuhoe folk included page 80Tuhua-katere, at Rua-toki; Te Wai-mana kaku, at Te Wai-mana; and Te Hau-o-Puanui, the store of the Nga-Potiki chief Te Rangi-monoa, at Karioi. Anent this latter store, the local folk have preserved the saying, "Ma te Hau-o-Puanui e whakahoki mai." It appears that the above chief's wife eloped with another man one fair morn, some two centuries and a half ago. Rangi was urged to pursue the sinful twain, to slay the man, and bring his wife back. It was then that Rangi made the above remark, "The Hau-o-Puanui will bring her back." He opined that ere long she would return to the well-stocked food-store of that name and we believe she did so.

As observed, some of these food-stores were of considerable size, and would contain a great quantity of food. In the district of the lower Whakatane valley there is an old-time saying extant, showing that such places were constructed with the ridge-pole consisting of four pieces of timber, which would mean a large storehouse. "Tikina ki waho ki te Whanau Pani hai mahi i te rua, kia toru ai hono o te rua" (Go out and procure the services of the Whanau Pani to construct the store, and let it be made with three joints [in the ridge-pole]). Whanau Pani was the popular name for three brothers of Ngati-Awa who were famous house-builders and wood-carvers.

In Wade's "Journey in the Northern Island of New Zealand" (1842) occurs the following: "The whata has already been mentioned as one form of provision-store, as also the pataka. In districts where the ground is pretty constantly saturated with moisture the whata is adopted as the preferable mode, the potato or kumara being liable to rot in moist underground rua; but in drier districts, or where the soil is less porous, the rua is common. There are two forms of rua. One form is a quadrangular hole, about 3 ft. deep, dug in the ground, with the framework of a sloping roof erected over it, and covered in with strong thatch, the entrance being by a small door in the front. The other form is a cave dug in the earth, and entered by a hole from the top, or sometimes, as at Pa-teko, from the side. At the time of our residence at Tauranga the site of the old pa at Te Papa was so full of underground rua, mostly overgrown, that it was hardly safe to walk over it."

Of the semi-subterranean storehouses Mr. Skinner says, "Sometimes the storehouses were sunk in the ground 3 ft. or 4 ft., and the whole covered with a inverted V shape -shaped roof made of slabs, and outside them a covering of earth."

Te Whatahoro contributes the following notes regarding this type of storehouse: "The rua tahuhu was a storehouse formed by page 81excavating a hole about 3 ft. deep in the earth, and then putting over it a rounded roof, and covering the same with earth. The better part of the kumara crop was placed in such stores—tubers selected for the purpose of cooking for guests. The two heke ripi (maihi) of a rua tahuhu were sometimes ornamented with notched patterns, termed whakatatara, but never with such carvings as are seen on a dwellinghouse, or the elaborate pataka carvings. Such notched heke ripi boards were also sometimes painted with horu, or red ochre, but never the plain ones. Only the store-pits of persons of importance were so treated."

The rua whenua seems to have been much the same as a rua tahuhu—an excavated pit, with the roof above the ground-level. The excavated part was sometimes lined with slabs of tree-fern (ponga). To roof these pits pliant poles of manuka were thrust down into the earth, bent over into the form of an arch, and tied together in that position. Horizontal battens were then tied on to these poles, and the thatch lashed to these battens. The back wall was formed by inserting poles in the earth and bending their pliant tops over the rear end of the house (prior to thatching), and so lashing them. The front wall was vertical, and furnished with a small door and a pihanga, or, more correctly speaking, a koropihanga—a small opening for ventilation. When thatched the roof was covered with earth, thus leaving merely the front wall exposed. This is a Wai-rarapa form. The roof was always made with a slope; it was never flat. In the Whanga-nui district, we are told that the trunks of Dicksonia squarrosa were used for lining these food-pits, as well as for other purposes. Among the Tuhoe Tribe the trunks of several species of tree-ferns were used, and broad slabs or flakes of the trunks of Dicksonia fibrosa (punui) were employed wherewith to cover the roof-frame of pit stores.

When storing kumara, or sweet-potatoes, in such pits, the tubers are not allowed to come into contact with the slabs that form or line the walls, as such contact would cause decay to set in. The walls are lined, often with rushes, in order to prevent such contact. Many of such places had no wall-lining save rushes or fern.

The slabs or lengths of tree-fern trunks are termed pairi ponga in the southern part of the North Island. The Dicksonia squarrosa is known as whekii in some districts. The stems of this tree are much used wherewith to construct the walls of rough huts, as cook-sheds, &c., and such a hut is termed a whare tirawa among the Ngati-Pukeko folk of the Bay of Plenty. Dicksonia fibrosa is known as punui in the Matatua district, but as whekii-ponga, pehiakura, and whekii-kohunga in some other districts.

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Some of the larger rua kumara, or stores, were partitioned inside for the purpose of sorting the crop and placing the different sizes, &c., of the tubers in separate divisions of the store. Some of these stores were so arranged as to have a free passage from the entrance along the middle, while partitions, termed pakorokoro, were erected on either side at right angles to the passage, thus dividing each side of the alleyway into several bins. In one of these divisions the small tubers would be placed; in another the kumara tapuku, or large rounded tubers; in another the kumara kokau, or long narrow tubers; and in another the kumara mahora, those having a smooth even surface. It was in this way that tubers were sorted for seed when the crop was stored, and this saved time and trouble when the planting season was at hand. This is an east-coast item.