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The Coming of the Maori

Wooden Bowls

Wooden Bowls

The different Polynesian groups developed characteristic types of bowls which varied in the shape of the rim opening and the presence or absence of handles, legs, covers, and carving. The rim openings could be rectangular, elliptical oval or circular. By elliptical is meant that in bowls which are not circular, the rounded ends have the same curve or the same angle if the ends are pointed. In oval or egg-shaped openings, the curve of one end is greater than that of the other and in the so-called beaker type of central Polynesia, the smaller end is brought to a point. Circular openings rarely formed a perfect circle as they were judged by eye in construction but they were more nearly circular than elliptical.

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Handles, lugs, or projections were either horizontal to the ends of the rim as in Samoa and Manihiki or vertical to the rim as in the Society, Cook, and Austral Islands where single projections at the broad end of the beaker openings were ornamental instead of utilitarian. In Manihiki, one of the two horizontal projections was sometimes grooved to form a pouring spout. The beaker type of bowl was suited to pouring but in some of them, the lip of the pointed end was also grooved.

In bowls with rounded outer surfaces, the bottom was either flattened or provided with legs to maintain a level stand. In the Cook and Society Islands, both methods were used but four short legs, round in section, and made in one piece with the bowl were more characteristic. In Samoa, the flat bottom was used for food bowls ('umete) and legs of kava bowls (tanoa). In Hawaii, the circular bowls continued the curve on the bottom and thick coils of pandanus leaf were sometimes used as stands. Some elliptical bowls, however, were provided with two lateral supports like sleigh runners, made in one piece with the bowl. Lids were uncommon but they were made for some Marquesan and Hawaiian bowls.

Ornamental carving in the form of geometric motifs on the outer surface of the bowls was present in Mangaia, Raivavae, and Marquesas. In Raivavae, the vertical lug was carved for ornamentation and a unique bowl from Rurutu has small human figures in relief along the outer sides. In the Marquesas, an end lug was carved into a human head. In Hawaii, a number of elliptical dishes were flanked at each end by human figures clasping the bowl with outstretched arms and with the legs forming lower supports for the bowl. The two faces look inwards, outwards, or both ways. In Manihiki, ornamentation took the form of inlaying with discs of pearl shell and in western Polynesia, ornamentation was absent.

Wooden bowls are still in common use in most parts of Polynesia but I have seen only one bowl in use in New Zealand and that was for a bark infusion for dyeing flax fibre. A valuable study on Maori bowls (kumete) was made by Stevenson (82) on specimens in the Auckland Museum and a few other sources. He divided his material roughly into five series, with some extras, and left the designation of types for further study on additional material. Some of his figures are reproduced to illustrate this section.

The first series comprised long trough-like bowls, roughly made, with rectangular rim openings, rounded ends with two horizontal lugs, straight interior sides and ends slanting inwards, and a flat bottom (Fig. 9a). A variation was formed by rounding the ends of the rim opening to form an elliptical shape and one of the end lugs was grooved for pouring (Fig. 9b).

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The other four series cover smaller and better-made bowls with curved inner sides and with rim openings ranging from broadly oblong with rounded corners through elliptical to circular. The oblong bowl (Fig. 9c) has one horizontal lug perforated from above down and projecting from a little below the rim. A circular bowl (Fig. 9d) has two horizontal lugs also projecting from below the rim. Two well-made circular bowls from Taranaki have two horizontal lugs level with the rim and carved with human faces, one having a body which curved over to form a handle (Fig. 9e).

Fig. 9. Wooden bowls.a-h, after Stevenson (82); i, after Best (16, vol. 1, p. 420).

Fig. 9. Wooden bowls.
a-h, after Stevenson (82); i, after Best (16, vol. 1, p. 420).

A characteristic of the Maori bowls is the presence of one or two horizontal lugs, many being a little distance below the rim. The horizontal lug resembles the technique used in Manihiki, Marquesas, and Samoa and differs from that of central Polynesia. It is probable that the horizontal lug was the older technique and that the vertical lug of central Polynesia was a later development after dispersal took place. Another feature is the grooving of some lugs to form an open spout. In Manihiki, the grooved lugs were level with the rim and this technique was present in one of the trough-like bowls (Fig. 9b) and in a circular bowl (82, pl. 44, no. 7). However in two bowls, the grooved lugs, 60 and 90 mm. long, were 30 and 40 mm. respectively below the level of the rim and consequently holes page 110were made through the sides of the bowls to connect with the grooved spouts. This remarkable feature appears to be peculiar to New Zealand.

In a collection of smaller utensils which Stevenson (82, p. 208) designates as pouring utensils and platters, there are two of the beaker shape characteristic of central Polynesia and one has a well-formed groove at its pointed end (Fig. 9f).

Bowls with spouts were used for pouring melted fat into the receptacles containing grilled pigeons (huahua) and a bowl used for that purpose is figured by Hamilton (46, p. 405). They may also have been used in the process of working pounded fern root in water to separate the starchy matter from the rhizome fibres which were thrown out After settling, the water was poured off to leave the starch as a sediment at the bottom of the bowl. There were probably other uses particularly for the shallow beakers but they are not known to me.

A flat bottom was the usual technique for supporting the bowls but an unfinished bowl (Fig. 9g) has four legs in one piece with the bowl as in the technique of the Cook and Society Islands and yet another (Fig. 9h) has pierced runners on each side, a technique which occurs in some Hawaiian meat dishes. Another form of support was provided by a full human figure at each end with the enlarged feet resting on the ground and the two faces looking inwards (Fig. 9i). A bowl in the Bishop Museum (No. 1532) with similar carving has one face looking inwards and the other outward. Curiously enough this form of support and ornamentation by two human figures is also present in Hawaii. In both the Maori bowls, the rim openings are elliptical and the Hawaiian carved bowls or dishes are usually elliptical.

Lids were not made for the ordinary food bowls but they occur in the elaborately carved bowls which are said to have been used for serving preserved birds to people of rank. These bowls which have elliptical or circular rim openings are also flanked usually by carved human figures but as so many of them have been carved with steel tools for sale, it is doubtful how far back the type goes in time. As remarked by Stevenson (82, p. 209), the Maori in general appeared to look upon his bowls from the point of view of utility rather than of beauty, hence, with few exceptions, they were devoid of ornamentation.