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Maori Storehouses and Kindred Structures

Notes on Maori Food-Stores, — by Archdeacon Walsh

page 109

Notes on Maori Food-Stores,
by Archdeacon Walsh

In his paper on the "Cultivation of the Kumara," published in Volume xxxv of the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," Archdeacon Walsh makes the following remarks on the storage of the crop:—

"The storing of the crop required the greatest care and judgment, as, in spite of every precaution, it was barely possible to preserve the stock until the next planting-time. Besides being a delicate article to handle, the kumara is susceptible to every change of weather. A single bruised or chafed tuber will soon rot and communicate the decay to those in contact with it, while a very short exposure to damp, or even to cold air, will quickly spoil the whole lot.

"In constructing their storing-places the Maoris followed no uniform fixed pattern. As was usual with them, the idea they had in their minds was worked out subject to local conditions, and, as these varied more or less in every locality, it is not surprising to find a corresponding variety in their appliances.

"The chief question being the exclusion of damp and the maintenance of a moderate and even temperature, the object was very simply attained in a dry porous soil by the rua. This was a circular pit sunk in the ground 5 ft. or 6 ft. deep, and about the same in diameter, narrowing in at the top, and closed by a trap-door made of a wooden slab. The tubers were handed down to a person standing in the middle, and were piled radially around the sides on a bed of soft fern or Lycopodium (waewae koukou), a layer of the same material being placed between them and the wall. If sufficient accommodation was available only one pile was made, as they kept better if not packed in too large a mass. The enormous number of these rua on the volcanic plains of Taranaki and elsewhere shows the extent of former plantations.

"In situations where the soil was not sufficiently porous to allow the rua to be self-drained it was built partly above ground, generally on the slope of a hill. The pit was dug 2 ft. or 3 ft. deep…. An outfall drain was made from the bottom, and a surface channel round the top carried off the storm-water. A roof was made over the pit, the rafters being set in the ground at an angle of about 30°, and covered with sticks and fern, on which was piled a thick layer of earth, and the whole was coated with fronds of nikau to preserve the earth from the wash of the rain. The entrance was made in the page 110outfall drain, and was closed with a movable wooden slab or sliding-door.

"Very frequently, however, the storing-place was entirely above ground. A small house was built, with the walls about 4 ft. or 5 ft. high. These were framed of dressed slabs set vertically in the ground, with battens lashed on horizontally at intervals of a few inches, and covered over with two or three thicknesses of raupo, so as to be completely airtight. Mangemange (a kind of climbing-fern) or sheets of totara bark protected the lower part of the walls, and against this the earth was thrown up from a ditch sunk below the floor-level, which acted as a drain for the building. The roof was framed in a similar manner to the walls, and also covered with raupo, sometimes with an inner sheeting of totara bark, while an upper layer of toetoe grass, secured by ropes of mangemange or wooden battens, preserved the raupo from the wet. A door was generally placed at each end, so that, in order to prevent the wind blowing in, the house could always be entered from leeward; and the opening was made just large enough to allow a man to creep in on all-fours. This class of storehouse was always a conspicuous and picturesque object. They were often ornamented with elaborate carvings, inlaid with paua shell (Haliotis), and finished off with a tekoteko, or grotesque wooden figure, set up at the apex of the roof.

"Sometimes the storehouse was set up on legs 3 ft. or 4 ft. high, when it was called a pataka; and, as the imported rat found its way into the settlements, precaution had to be taken against its incursions by socketing the tops of the legs into heavy cross-pieces of timber hollowed out like sections of an inverted canoe.

"When only a small quantity of tubers had to be dealt with, a very simple device called the whakatoke was sometimes adopted. A shallow circular depression made in the ground was covered with a layer of long stalks of the common fern (Pteris aquilina), with the roots meeting at the centre and the heads radiating outwards. On this were piled about half a dozen baskets of tubers. The heads of the fern were then bent upwards and inwards so as to enclose the lot, and were tied together over the top. The whole was then covered with toetoe grass, and a layer of earth was thrown up from a trench round the outside.

"There were other modes of storing, which were variations or adaptations of those mentioned, in all of which the Maoris were guided by local circumstances. Sometimes the pit was made inside a large shed, and sometimes it was driven horizontally into the face of a steep bank. Occasionally the tubers were placed on a raised page 111platform (whata) and covered with mats and fronds of nikau, while in some rare instances the storehouse was built in the forked branches of a tree."

The writer then quotes an item from Colenso's remarks on these stores: "All these storehouses were rigidly tapu, as were also the few persons who were allowed to visit them for any purpose, all visits being formal and necessary. The labour bestowed on them in those early times, before the use of iron, was immense, and they were mostly renewed as to the reed-work every year."

The above is an excellent description, for a brief one, of the various styles of storage-places used by the Maori in former times. The writer does not, however, tell us which tribes the notes were gathered from; some of the forms described are probably northern usages. The circular rua or pit described was by no means a universal form, many of such being square, as seen on the east coast. The semi-subterranean stores described in the fourth paragraph were rectangular, and in many cases were made on the summits of spurs or ridges; we have seen the remains of hundreds so situated, many on sharp razorback spurs, where drainage was an easy matter. The storehouse wholly above ground was certainly uncommon, and, we believe, unknown in many districts—that is, as a kumara store. The two-door system also was probably confined to certain tribes or districts. In regard to the pataka and whata, these were not erected or used as kumara stores in most districts though a few for immediate consumption might be put in such places. Precautions against the entry of rats had to be taken in pre-European times, though the imported rat is a much greater nuisance than ever the native rat was.

Though the Dominion Museum has a fairly good collection of photographs of the highly ornate carvedpataka, and of parts of such buildings, yet illustrations of more common forms are decidedly scarce. Hence we have but few representations of the ordinary plain, unadorned, elevated storehouses, and none of the inferior ones occasionally seen, in the construction of which a framework of poles was erected and covered, walls and roof, with a thatch of coarse grass or bulrush. Such common objects do not appeal to the photographer. The ordinary pataka of to-day, although useful as of old, bears a different aspect to the old-time ones, on account of certain European innovations, such as sawn boards, shingled roofs, &c. To judge from the illustrations of canoes, houses, and pataka met with in works dealing with the Maori, one might naturally suppose that the majority of such items are, or were, superior structures page 112highly embellished with carvings, whereas the reverse was the case. This should be distinctly understood. It is on account of the uninteresting aspect of common pataka, platforms, pit and cave stores, &c., that we possess so few illustrations of them.

We have, however, shown in the preceding pages how the Maori stored his food products and miscellaneous goods, and that the highly ornamented store-house, the carved designs of which would represent some years of tedious labour, was not a common object, and no whit more useful than a plain unadorned structure.

The subject treated on in this bulletin—viz., the storehouses, platforms, and pits used by the Maori people—may possibly be deemed unimportant and unattractive, but it includes and illustrates some of the most skilful work performed by the old-time Maori, and also throws light on other phases of their industrial life. That life, together with their social customs, can only be satisfactorily understood after an intensive study of the material before us—a study which it is hoped that the publication of this bulletin will aid.

Central Plank of Pataka, showing Doorway.

Central Plank of Pataka, showing Doorway.