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The Coming of the Maori

Houses without Walls

Houses without Walls

The term wharau was also applied to better-made canoe sheds and in Polynesia, the dialectal forms of wharau are still in use as the name for canoe sheds. The structure of the Polynesian canoe sheds consisted of two median ridgeposts supporting a ridgepole and rafters on each side with their lower ends embedded in the ground. When thatched with coconut leaves, the roof reached directly to the ground and there were no separate side walls. Some sheds had curved rafter poles to give greater clearance at the sides and others had the ridgepole supported entirely by the rafters to eliminate the median ridgeposts and so give greater clearance to the entrance of outrigger canoes. Similar buildings were constructed as dwelling houses for the hurricane season because their lower height and the absence of eaves gave less obstruction to the wind and thus less chance of the roof being blown off.

It is probable that houses without raised walls were used extensively in New Zealand in early times but they did not become the general type of dwelling house. A simple type, however, survived in the Chatham Islands. Shand (66, p. 4) states that the Moriori dwelling huts "were oblong and [unclear: -shaped] without walls, and the better class were carved and ornamented to a certain extent." They were thatched with toetoe (Arundo conspicua) and rushes and frequently lined with the bark of the akeake (Olearia traversii) for warmth. Skinner (71, p. 75) figured the front elevation of a rectangular Moriori house (Fig. 10b) which shows the lower ends of the rafters resting on the ground and the floor sunk page 115below the ground level. The sunken floor as a constant feature is amply proved by the rectangular depressions which indicate old house sites.

The pattern also persisted in New Zealand in the roofed storing pits for sweet potatoes. A rectangular pit was excavated on sloping ground or a terrace. For the roof framework, a median ridgepost was erected in the back wall but as the doorway was made in the middle of the front wall, a front median ridgepost was rendered impossible. The doorway, however, was defined by two side posts with a cross piece set on their upper ends. The problem of ridgepole support was met very simply by erecting a short piece, or king post, on the middle of the door cross piece
Fig. 10. House frameworka, lean-to shed; b, Moriori, adapted from Skinner (71, fig. 11); c, Maori roofed store pit; d, e, central Polynesia.

Fig. 10. House framework
a, lean-to shed; b, Moriori, adapted from Skinner (71, fig. 11); c, Maori roofed store pit; d, e, central Polynesia.

to form the front support of the ridgepole (Fig. 10c). The ridgepole was placed in position and wooden slabs termed oka were laid obliquely with their upper ends against the ridgepole and the lower ends resting on the ground a short distance away from the side edges of the pit. In some store pits, a long batten was supported on either side of the ridgepole to give additional support to the oka slabs. The oka slabs were covered with tree-fern slabs, bark, rushes and lastly earth.

Pit dwellings excavated to three or four feet and roofed over like the store pits were used occasionally in some districts and Best (16, Vol. 2, p. 578) records that two very old women were seen living in such a pit dwelling in the Wairarapa in 1849. The local name for the pit dwelling was whare manuka probably because manuka bark was used for the roofing material page 116Such houses required less timber in their construction, which was probably one of the reasons why they persisted in the Chatham Islands. Their practical use as kumara storehouses perpetuated the pattern in New Zealand. Probably some of the so-called pit dwellings were disused store pits which were used by neglected old people. The sunken floor may have been made originally to give more height at the sides for the technique amounted to excavating low side walls in place of building them upwards with extra timber. As the roof came down to the ground at the sides, the only suitable place for the doorway was at one end.

The use of the king post in the roofed store pit is interesting for the king post and tie beam for supporting the ridgepole was a common form of architecture in western Polynesia. In the Maori storehouses, however, it was an expedient determined by the middle position of the door in a fairly narrow front wall and it was never adopted in dwelling houses.

The sunken floor in dwelling houses was a local development. It not only does not exist in Polynesia but the opposite technique prevails in that houses are usually built on platforms formed of stone and earth that were raised above the level of the ground. The sunken floor became an integral part of all Maori dwelling houses and its presence in the Chatham Islands in connection with houses without walls indicates not only that it originated in New Zealand before the Moriori ancestors left but that it may have originated in connection with the early type of house without walls. The credit of the invention may therefore be given to the first settlers; and it may well be that the house without walls and with a sunken floor was the type of wharau which the later arrivals from Hawaiki learned from their predecessors.