Title: Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

Author: Timothy Walker

Publication details: University of Auckland, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Timothy Walker

Part of: The Moko Texts Collection

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Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

Nga Mokamokai — Whakairo tangata

page 120

Nga Mokamokai
Whakairo tangata

The following pages contain Robley's drawings of, and notes pertaining to, Mokamokai. His many watercolours, drawings and sketches of Mokamokai have not, however, been catalogued as individual works, nor listed in the form of an inventory. Rather each Mokamokai is represented by an amalgam of images, comments and notes drawn from Robley's prolific investigation into the subjects of moko and Mokamokai.

A small section containing the designs of whakairo tangata (tattooing of the body) recorded by Robley is included immediately subsequent to the Mokamokai section. (see page 181)

The designs of moko are referred to by the names listed in the Glossary on page 108.

Abbreviations and Terms


American Museum of Natural History, New York

AMNH sheet

This refers to the sheets of information Robley provided with each of the Mokamokai purchased by the American Museum of Natural History. (see pages 142 & 147)

page 121

The Mokamokai represented on the following pages are those collected by Robley, and those which he studied closely but did not — or could not — acquire. As such, the designs of moko here reproduced are those from which the basis of his understanding of the art was drawn.

It is possible, indeed probable, that a number of these Mokamokai originated from the Trade in Heads which flourished during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Because of this the ‘correctness’ of their moko designs is a somewhat subjective question. In the following catalogue, Robley's drawings, comments and notes have been arranged so that they might serve as a point of reference for further study, analysis and discussion. It is from carefully observing these designs and comparing them — with one another and with other examples of moko — that the true nature and value of Robley's work is best approached. A written discussion cannot adequately perform the same function. Similarly, the exact quality of these designs' authenticity must be addressed within the specific terms of the observer, and in reference to moko in a more general sense. Although these drawings are by Robley, it is the art at their source — that of the Tohunga ta moko — which most profoundly informs them.

NB: Because of the nature of Mokamokai, the designs represented on the following pages are all those of male Mataora moko. The only female Mokamokai (see page 176) bears the designs of male tattooing; either because of the woman's rank within her tribe [see Simmons: 1983 p. 240], or because the moko was carried out during the ‘Trade in Heads’, in which male tattooing was preferred by European collectors.

page 122

The American Museum of Natural History Collection (AMNH)

The majority of the Mokamokai here represented are those purchased from Robley by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Mr Morris K. Jessup, of the AMNH, acquired thirty-five Mokamokai from Robley in 1907.)

The classification of the Mokamokai in the AMNH Collection is complicated by the wide discrepancies apparent between the existing systems of cataloguing and classication.

The principal existing classification systems are:


AMNH Sheets (Robley) When Robley sold the thirty-five Mokamokai to the AMNH in 1907 he also provided the Museum with a sheet of detailed information for each Head. Examples of these sheets are reproduced on pages 142 and 147.

Unfortunately the Museum staff at the time made no cross-reference between these Sheets and the Mokamokai to which they referred. This, together with the fact that Sheets No 26, 34 and 35 are missing, means that it is not possible to identify the Mokamokai with any certainty on the basis of these Sheets alone.


Robley's drawings The numbering system used by Robley at the time of the 1907 sale (ie that system defined by the AMNH Sheets discussed above) was different to that used during the earlier stages of compiling his collection of Mokamokai. The rationale behind his numbering system was, beginning at No 1, to arrange the Mokamokai from those displaying the least tattooing, through to those which were completely covered. His judgement of the ‘quality’ of the moko was the secondary criteria for the arrangement within this general order.

This system meant, for example, that when Robley added the eleventh Mokamokai to his collection, it did not simply become No 11, but was placed in its relevant position within the existing number system, if, for example, Robley decided that it would be classed as No 8, page 123 the existing No 8–10 would become No 9–11. Because of this practice, many of his drawings of the same Mokamokai are referred to by widely varying numbers. It would be incorrect, therefore, to identify or classify a Mokamokai on the basis of the number accorded it in an individual drawing or representation.

Robley's inconsistency in numbering the Mokamokai — and thus his drawings — should not, however, be seen as evidencing a lack of scientific accuracy on his part: it should not cast doubt as to the accuracy of the drawings themselves or of the non-numerical annotations.


P. C. Gifford Classification In attempting to define the relationship between Robley's number system (ie that described by the AMNH Sheets) and the AMNH accession numbers, Mr Philip C. Gifford of the AMNH Anthropology Department made a set of catalogue cards which tentatively link the two classifications. While these cards can be followed with a degree of confidence, they leave a number of the Mokamokai unaccounted for. This inevitably raises doubts as to the accuracy of some of the other, rather uncertain, classifications made by Gifford.


D. R. Simmons Classification Working largely from Gifford's cards and first-hand observation of the Mokamokai themselves, D. R. Simmons of the Auckland Institute and Museum has clarified many of the earlier discrepancies. [See “Catalogue of Maori artefacts in the Museums of Canada and the United States of America”: 1982] There are, however, discrepancies between a number of Simmons' classifications and information contained in other sources, particularly in Robley's many annotated drawings of Mokamokai. In some instances these discrepancies are such that they bring into doubt the accuracy of Simmons' classifications.

The problems surrounding the classification of the AMNH Mokamokai are complex. As it has not been possible for the author to observe the Mokamokai first-hand, the following Catalogue has been page 124 arranged from a careful sorting through of information drawn from each of the systems of classification outlined above. In many cases there is no discrepancy between the AMNH Sheet number, the AMNH accession number, Gifford's classification and Simmons' classification. In these instances there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the details as presented.

Where there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the classification of a Mokamokai, this has been noted on the relevant page. In all cases priority has been given to ensuring that there is an exact accordance between the visual representation of the Mokamokai, and the written notes purporting to describe it. It is on these latter grounds that discrepancies are most apparent in the existing systems of classification. There remain, however, a number of instances of minor discrepancies between the visual and written information. These we may attribute to the vagaries apparent between different representations of the same Mokamokai; in some, for example, Robley has rendered the eyes sewn closed, in others he has shown the eyes open and preserved in place. Because of his tendency to overlook such details on some occasions, it is inevitable that minor inconsistencies are — in rare instances — apparent in his documentation.

In some of his drawings of Mokamokai, Robley deviated from the original designs to a marked degree — adding further motifs and secondary lines of ‘tattooing’. These drawings are, however, rare and do not undermine the accuracy of the body of his work. Care has been taken to only include those representations of moko which are most likely to adhere to the lines of tattooing present on the Mokamokai in question. Because Robley drew each of these on numerous occasions it is possible to define the correct design — as opposed to an interpreted, or embellished redition — with a degree of certainty.

Although Robley's representations of Mokamokai give the impression that the lines of moko tattooed thereon are definitely traced and easily decipherable, this is not always the case. Those lines tattooed during life frequently lose much of their definition during the drying process of preservation (pakipaki). It is possible, therefore, that Robley's perception of such tattooing was prejudiced page 125 by this uncertainty of design. Given his extraordinary familiarity with moko and Mokamokai, however, it is difficult to accept such a conclusion.

A major short-coming of these graphic representations of Mokamokai is that they do not — or perhaps could not — differentiate between lines of life tattooing and post-mortem work. As it is likely that this difference is of great importance in determining the authenticity of the designs tattooed, this omission is unfortunate. It does, however, bear out Robley's contention that the study of the Mokamokai themselves was (and is) the only way to acquire a complete understanding of their moko.