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Est. 1868: Soapstone whio

Whio Wide

It’s often hard to put a single museum object into its cultural context when you’re viewing it through glass inside a European-style building, and being told a story that is quite removed from its original setting. For this reason, I decided to investigate a little more of the background of one of my favourites in the taoka Māori collections.The beautifully carved soapstone whio (whistle) also happens to be on display in the futurest case in the est. 1868 exhibition, helping to tell a story of how old data creates new knowledge.

The whio was once the possession of a person who would have considered it an invaluable aid in their whānau cycle of doing the mahika kai rounds in southern New Zealand, where particular food resources were harvested, hunted, or gathered according to the seasons. While concealed in undergrowth, its owner would have blown across the aperture at the top, attracting kākā to their location. Once a number of kākā had gathered, a long patu would have been employed in a kākā leg-level sweep, thus disabling them and facilitating their quick death with a blow to the head.[1]

Nestor meridionalis Kaka Stewart Island 6

Image: Stewart Island kākā. By Arthur ChapmanCC BY-NC.

Whistling to attract birds was a common hunting strategy of Māori and there are numerous accounts and descriptions of people imitating bird calls or using whistles made from halved flax blades rolled into a cone shape to entice their prey. However, museum collections seem to be pretty light in the number of stone karanga manu, karanga weka, whio, and kākā decoys[2] they hold, and of those that do exist, all but one originated from Murihiku[3]. Of the major New Zealand museums, only Te Papa has three in their collections, one of unknown origin, another carved from steatite and collected from Southland and the third a modern creation by the Ngā Puhi carver Clem Mellish[4]. The whio on display in est. 1868 is one of three held by Otago Museum, although one is charmingly described as an “unfinished hawhaw decoy”.[5] Both of the other whio were collected from Glenorchy by Charles Haines, a Wakatipu identity and avid collector of Māori artefacts of the early 20th century.[6]

Foveaux Strait

Image: Satellite view of Foveaux Strait, showing Rarotoka as the smallish island sitting about 1 o’clock above Stewart Island, close to the mainland. By NASA/Sally Ride EarthKAM. Public Domain Mark.

The futurest whio was collected from Rarotoka (formerly known as Centre Island) in Foveaux Strait. It was part of a very considerable donation of objects to Otago Museum by Sir Frederick Revans Chapman, a Supreme Court judge whose interest and knowledge in ethnographic pursuits was well-regarded at the time[7]. Sir Frederick’s donation of around 3000 objects, made up mostly of material collected from Otago and Southland beaches, also included some objects from Centre Island[8]. The Evening Star noted at the time the significance of the “carved soapstone decoy whistle”[9]. While Sir Frederick was noted for being involved in the actual collecting of curios from around Southland and Otago, it’s unlikely he collected the Rarotoka collection personally. William Cameron, lighthouse keeper at the island and husband of Teriana (Sarah-Anne) Howell (a daughter of the whaler Captain John Howell and Kohikohi), sent a box of artefacts to Sir Frederick, and it is likely that this is how he came into possession of the collection.[10]

Rarotoka has strong historical and traditional connections for Kāi Tahu, including as a stopping off point on the way to the TīTī Islands[11]. Archaeologist Wendy Harsant noted that the island was a resting stop for Kāi Tahu warrior Tarewai on his journey to Preservation Inlet[12], chasing Kāti Māmoe after the skirmishes on the Otago Peninsula, however over the short time it took to write this blog, I couldn’t find any other accounts that confirm this. 

Archaeology and material culture studies, however, give a much longer picture of human occupation and use of the island. We can say with some certainty that the island was visited at the least during the early period, due to the type of artefacts Chapman donated that are synonymous with that time, such as large tanged quadrangular adzes, one-piece fish hooks, “ulu” (an Inuit term given by early archaeologists to what would be better termed in te reo Māori as a maripi), and most tellingly, moa eggshell. There is also a considerably large number of younger artefacts that relatively date to the late and early contact periods, including composite fish hooks and a hei tiki that had been worked on with both stone and metal tools. This fits well with the more recent thinking of Māori activities in the Foveaux Strait area, where there was activity and movement during the early period (albeit without the massive coastal occupation sites of the east Otago coast), the near abandonment of the area post moa extinction, and reoccupation in the late period.[13]

Next time you’re visiting the Museum, wander into est. 1868 and find the whio. I hope you see it with an entirely different perspective and wonder about what events it may have been a part of. It’s good to remember that the curios and artefacts picked up by fossickers and collectors are a part of a human story in their own right.

est. 1868 is open daily in the Special Exhibitions Gallery, 10am to 5pm, until 14 April 2019. Entry is free.

[1] Beattie, H B (1994). Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

[2] All variations of nomenclature I employed in my quest to get a rough idea of how many others are held within the major New Zealand museum collections.

[3] I have used the traditional geographic definition of Murihiku here, meaning the area from the Waitaki River to Foveaux Strait, excluding Fiordland. 

[4] Te Papa Collections Online. accessed 6 October 2018.

[5] D44.364 register entry, Otago Museum collection records.

[6] “Obituary Mr Charles Haines”. Lake Wakatipu Mail. 18 January 1945.

[7] Skinner, H D (1938). “Sir Frederick Revans Chapman 1849 – 1936”. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 68: 1 – 3.

[8] Otago Museum Annual Report 1921.

[9] “Otago Museum – The Chapman Collection”. Evening Star. 24 December 1921.

[10] Harsant, W (1986). “Rarotoka, Foveaux Strait, New Zealand: its artefacts and settlement history”. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 8: 33 – 59.

[11] Kā Huru Manu. accessed 7 October 2018.

[12] Harsant, W (1986). “Rarotoka, Foveaux Strait, New Zealand: its artefacts and settlement history”. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 8: 33 – 59.

[13] Jacomb, C, R Walter, & C Jennings (2010). “Review of the archaeology of Foveaux Strait”. Journal of the Polynesian Society 119 (1): 25 – 59.

Top image: Whio. Otago Museum Collection. D31.760.