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The Coming of the Maori

Common Houses

Common Houses

The houses described by Cook (25, Vol. 3, p. 457) were seldom more than 18 to 20 feet long, 8 to 10 feet broad, and 5 to 6 feet high from the ground to the ridgepole. The framing was generally slender sticks and both walls and roof were covered with dried grass very tightly put together. The door at one end was just high enough to admit a man creeping on his hands and knees and near the door was a square hole serving the double office of window and chimney. The sidewalk and roof projected about two feet beyond the walls "at each end to form a porch, in which there are benches for the accommodation of the family." A fireplace was enclosed in a square by partitions of wood or stone and in the middle a fire was kindled. The floor along the inside of the walls was thickly covered with straw for the family to sleep on. Cook evidently made a mistake in saying that the roof projected about two feet "at each end" for there is no supporting evidence that there was ever more than one porch.

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Other early writers noted the remarkably small door and the inside height of 5 to 6 feet. Best (16, Vol. 2, p. 577) states that the small doors were about 30 inches high and 18 inches wide. However, the houses were made solely to sleep in or to take refuge from the cold and as the occupants crawled in to assume the recumbent position, there was no need for larger doors or greater height inside. Standing room to enable orators to make speeches or discharge other social functions was provided by the large meeting houses.

The common houses had sunken floors a foot or so below ground level and earth was heaped up against the outer side of the low side walls to give further protection against cold. The framework was made of poles and Best (16, Vol. 2, p. 565) states that in the common huts, the battens to support the roof [purlins] were lashed to the rafters. It is exasperating that no one has described the construction of the common houses in detail for it is in the common buildings that old techniques are likely to survive. The lashing of the purlins (kaho) directly to the rafters is the Polynesian technique and with it should go the use of a wall plate but so far no one has put this important detail on record.

Houses with the door in the side instead of the end were termed wharau in Taranaki. In such houses, the side walls were higher than those of the houses with an end door. If constructed as a permanent sleeping house, the floor was sunk and the eaves on the front door side were prolonged at a more obtuse angle to form a veranda. Some that were made in my own village during the walking pilgrimages (whanganga) of the Ngari Ruanui chief, Titokowaru, were temporary structures to accommodate the large influx of visitors. They were very long, probably over a hundred feet, and they were without the veranda or the sunken floor.

Cooking houses (whare umu, kauta) were built to protect the earth oven (umu) and it was not necessary to sink the floor. In some, the walls were formed of upright slabs of tree fern. Cut firewood was often stacked against the inside of the walls and kept in position by upright stakes. Details of the framework of the roof and the thatch have not been recorded.

Round huts, according to Best (16, Vol. 2, p. 578), were roughly made for cooking sheds in the Whanganui district and Skinner (71, p. 74) states that early discoverers and Travers mention circular huts as occurring in the Chatham Islands. Had the architectural problem of constructing a circular framework been satisfactorily solved in New Zealand, one would have expected that circular huts would have persisted as an alternative form of house construction. The fact that information regarding round huts is so scanty indicates that such as were made were makeshift structures of little importance.