Pounamu: New Zealand’s Beloved Greenstone

New Zealand's South Island Treasure
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
April 23, 2019 Updated: April 23, 2019

Slowly, slowly, years of erosion gently unlock pieces of greenstone into the Te Wai Pounamu: the greenstone waters of New Zealand’s South Island, the only place they’re found. This is how “pounamu,” the greenstone revered by New Zealanders, emerges before it settles in riverbeds, or along the coast after being swept out to sea.

Greenstone water new zealand
The Arahura River on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the greenstone waters where pounamu can be found. (Jan Nauta/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

Steeped in Maori myth and tradition, pounamu, pronounced “POE-nah-moo,” refers to three different types of stone: nephrite, bowenite, and serpentinite.

The exhibition “Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone,” at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, explores the Kiwi fascination with pounamu, from the bare rock to the finished product, through a selection of historic and modern tools, weapons, and ornaments.

A selection of “hei tiki” at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Canterbury Museum)

The exhibition was organized by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which is New Zealand’s national museum, in association with the traditional guardians of pounamu, the Ngai Tahu iwi (tribe). It was first shown in Te Papa from September 2009 to July 2011, after which it was adapted for an international audience, touring China from November 2012 to June 2014, and Paris from May to October 2017.

“Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone” is now at the Canterbury Museum, in the very area that pounamu originates from. As such, the exhibition can be seen until June 3, 2019, and also includes exhibits from the Canterbury Museum’s collection. Corban Te Aika, curator of Matauranga Maori (human history), tells us more.

Corban Te Aika, curator of human history (Matauranga Maori), at the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand. (Canterbury Museum)

The Epoch Times: Why is pounamu so treasured in New Zealand?
Corban Te Aika: A lot of that has to do with the fact that it served many purposes. And probably the most important aspect of pounamu is that it’s the strongest naturally occurring stone you can find in New Zealand.

Before pounamu was introduced to Maori, they were using things like basalt and argillite, and quite common rocks in the construction of tools and implements. All pounamu has a set of properties that are far superior to those other stones in terms of making tools and implements.

Not only did the stone have practical purposes, but it’s also a beautiful stone, so the construction of jewelry and other adornments was a natural progression for it.

It’s quite a hard stone to work and so very labor-intensive. Even the smallest kind of pendant can take quite a significant time to shape and polish, and so it was seen as being a symbol of authority and prestige to have pounamu.

The Epoch Times: Is it still seen that way?
Mr. Te Aika: Yes, definitely. I think globalization, particularly in our tourism industry, has had an impact on that somewhat, in the sense that it’s pretty easy now to buy pounamu. But generally, those items are made using modern tools and diamond saws, so that kind of preciousness of pounamu has been lost somewhat in its mass production.

The Epoch Times: What do you personally feel about the tourist industry around such a precious stone?
Mr. Te Aika: On some levels, I think it’s great that we’re able to share our culture with the world. But at the same time, though, I do think it’s sometimes a little bit—not tokenistic—but it’s tied up too much in our tourism industry. Now, it’s very hard to go to a shop or a tourist venture and not find pounamu for sale, or at least something that’s advertised as being pounamu.

Up until very recently, it was fairly common to find Canadian jade, or even Chinese jade, sometimes being shaped into things that were definitely Maori. But this misrepresentation of it as being genuine New Zealand jade, New Zealand nephrite, or New Zealand pounamu, can be a little bit misleading.

Hei tiki New Zealand pendant
Hei tiki (pendant in human form). Te Aika whanau (family), Ngai Tuahuriri, Ngai Tahu. (Maarten Holl/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

There’s a big difference between buying something that has been mass-produced and something that has been shaped by an artist, a carver of pounamu. It’s very easy to produce a “hei tiki” figure, a pendant in a human form, but the story and symbolism behind it is a little bit different when it has come from somebody who has worked that particular stone using traditional methods, or even with modern tools.

I suppose it’s the idea that the life force of the artist or carver has been imposed on the particular rock that they have been shaping, and that’s a little bit different from something that has just been mass-produced.

The Epoch Times: My New Zealand friends who own a piece of pounamu say that every owner has a story behind their pounamu—it’s either that you’ve been guided to it or you’ve received it as a gift. Do you believe that?
Mr. Te Aika: Yes, I do think that’s quite accurate. Every stone has its own story.

There are a few well-known stories of the different greenstone clubs, called “pounamu mere.” There may be three or four that may be carved from the same boulder, and they might all be used in the defense of a particular fortified village, called a “pa site,” or things like that, historically. It’s that type of story that can often get lost in the mass-produced items.

New Zealand greenstone clubs
Different shades and shapes of “pounamu mere,” or greenstone clubs. (Canterbury Museum)

Mass-produced items would usually have a label that describes the symbolism behind that particular shape or form, but I don’t think that’s giving you the same narrative that you might get when you are dealing with a carver and an artist, and you can hear the inspirations as to how that particular piece of art came to be, or the story around the stone. The stories are endless on that front, really.

The Epoch Times: There’s a geological way of classifying the pounamu and a Maori way of classifying the pounamu. Can you please tell us a little about that?
Mr. Te Aika: The Maori classification of pounamu basically comes down to the colors, the hues, and the variations that you get in each rock. No two boulders are ever identical across the six or seven major waterways where you can find pounamu; each river has a slightly different form of pounamu that emerges along it.

Pounamu greenstone
Detail of a pounamu “kohatu” or boulder, of the kawakawa variety. Maori classify pounamu by the environment. The kawakawa is a native tree. (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

A lot of the traditional names of pounamu are determined by the attributes from within the stone that can be related back to the sort of phenomena within the environment or a species. As an example, there is a type of greenstone that actually isn’t green at all. If anything, it is kind of gray or brown with a series of black dots on it, and the traditional name for that is “kokopu.” A kokopu is a type of fish, which, if you look at its underbelly, is nearly always a brown-gray color with a number of black spots over it.

Another example is a type of pounamu which is almost translucent, a very pale light green, sometimes even blue. The traditional name for that is “inanga,” and it takes its name from whitebait, or juvenile fish.

The Epoch Times: If I went to the areas where pounamu is found, how could I find some?
Mr. Te Aika: If you ask the traditional guardians of pounamu, Ngati Waewae and Ngati Mahaki iwi, they will tell you that you shouldn’t go out looking for pounamu, but that the pounamu will reveal itself to you.

If you go out with the intent of “I need to find pounamu so I can make some money off of it,” or whatever, you’re not going to find any. You’re better off interacting with the landscape, taking in the environment, and if the pounamu deems you worthy enough, the pounamu will reveal itself to you.

The Epoch Times: How is pounamu traditionally carved?
Mr. Te Aika: All of the knowledge of how to shape pounamu and work it is tied up, or at least recorded, in our oral traditions.

Sandstone is the main stone used to shape pounamu. According to the old traditions, the guardian of pounamu is fearful of the guardian of sandstone, and whenever sandstone and pounamu see each other, they take off in opposite directions. They don’t like being near each other.

When shaping stone, you have to keep the surface of the pounamu moist.

You might have to go through several pieces of sandstone in order to get the general shape of a hei tiki, and then you are going to need smaller pieces of sandstone in order to do all the finer shaping. It’s something that you wouldn’t finish in a couple of days. You’re probably looking at months, if not years, to shape them.

Greenstone New Zealand tiki
The different stages of carving a pounamu “hei tiki.” (Canterbury Museum)

We have a saying in Maori that when translated into English says, “That which consumes sandstone, consumes people,” and so that reiterates the idea that shaping with sandstone is a very labor-intensive process.

If you take a stock standard hei tiki that you would buy in an artist’s shop, you’re looking at upward of 3,000 or 4,000 New Zealand dollars (about $2,030 or $2,700) to purchase it, and so there’s potentially upward of 60 or 70 hours of work that have gone into shaping that hei tiki.

Hei Tiki greenstone pounamu
Hei tiki (pendant in human form), 2008, by Lewis Tamihana Gardiner of the iwi (tribes) Ngai Tahu, Te Arawa, Ngati Awa, and Te Whanau-a-Apanui, New Zealand. (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

The Epoch Times: The woodworking tools made of pounamu in the exhibition, called “toki,” date back to the time New Zealand was settled, some 700 to 800 years ago. Please tell us about these adze blades.
Mr. Te Aika: The toki shape and form is found right across the Pacific, and so nearly every Polynesian culture has some sort of tool or implement that is similar, if not identical, to a toki. In fact, its general shape and style hasn’t actually changed that much. There are a few different types of toki, but they’re essentially, for the most part, one and the same: a large chisel-like tool.

A lot of the earlier toki that you’ll find in archaeological sites and in museum collections are usually made of basalt or argillite.

After people discovered pounamu and its superior qualities, naturally they started to make tools and implements based on the cultural norms and their understanding to date, so they started to experiment with pounamu.

Generally, the wider and the bigger the toki, you’re going to get a deeper groove on your carving, so the smaller toki, the finer ones, are obviously for finer details and intricate patterns. But eventually, it’s a go-to tool that you find up and down the country in New Zealand and, in fact, right across the Pacific.

Toki blades
“Toki” on display at Canterbury Museum’s exhibition “Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone.” (Canterbury Museum)

The Epoch Times: Do the toki ever become blunt?
Mr. Te Aika: It’s near-on impossible for it to become blunt, but it’ll chip, and you basically just sharpen the edge again or remove the area that’s been chipped. Chisel it away, just smooth it off, and then you’ve got another cutting edge.

Toki greenstone blades
Pounamu “toki” blades, used in woodworking. (Canterbury Museum)

And so, quite often you might find a toki that, say, it’s an inch or two long. But it was once upon a time a toki that was five or six inches long, and over time, it’s been reworked and reshaped if it’s been chipped too much.

The Epoch Times: Please tell us about the pounamu touchstones.
Mr. Te Aika: Generally speaking, Maori view pounamu, or rocks and boulders of pounamu, as having a “mouri,” a spiritual life force, within them, and so quite often, people will use pounamu as touchstones or mouri stones.

If a building has a mouri stone, the idea is that it’s protecting the life force of the building that you are in. And so it kind of comes back to that idea of you can’t find pounamu, the pounamu will find you; it’s got this life force in it.

There are number of touchstones in the exhibition that people can touch and feel.

Pounamu greenstone touchstone
A variety of pounamu touchstones show the beautiful marbling of New Zealand’s greenstone. (Canterbury Museum)

One of the touchstones is sitting in water and sandstone gravel, and so visitors can actually have a go at removing the outer rind of the stone and polishing the piece of pounamu. So it’s that idea that if it has a life force, then there is more to it than just trying to chisel, or shape it, or work it.

We’ve had a couple of people who’ve taken a little bit of sandstone and they’ve literally stood there for half an hour going backward and forward on the same spot, and they’ve made the smallest indentation on the surface of the rock. And in doing so, they’ve started to expose the surface of the stone.

That particular touchstone is a really cool interactive exhibit for our museum visitors and the community as a whole, to contribute to shaping and polishing this particular stone.

To discover more about “Kura Pounamu” at the Canterbury Museum, go to CanterburyMuseum.com

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.