The skeletal remains of more than 80 people were the subject of a ceremony at Whanganui Regional Museum on Wednesday, acting director Libby Sharpe says.

The koiwi (human remains) were then reburied at Aramoho Cemetery, after a dignified service.

The ceremony and burial were the end of a lengthy process, with more to follow.

Nga Tangata Tiaki chairman Gerrard Albert told Radio New Zealand not much was known about the koiwi, including where they came from. Some had been in the museum's Whare Tapu (crypt) for more than 100 years, and others were brought from elsewhere.


The day began with a powhiri at the museum for a group from Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum in Wellington. Present were museum staff, kaumatua, Whanganui's mayor and councillors, and others.

The Te Papa group brought three skulls. Two were of adults and dated back to at least 1860. They had been repatriated from overseas.

To the same powhiri a group from Whanganui's Cleveland Funeral Home brought remains that had been handed to them. They were of about eight individuals.

Most of the remains were Maori, Ms Sharpe said, though some were European and Indian.

The koiwi were wrapped in harakeke (flax) paper and put in boxes. The boxes were laid on "significant to Whanganui" whariki (woven mats) and covered with kakahu (cloaks) decorated with the feathers of kiwi, weka, tui, kereru and other birds.

The remains were welcomed home, karakia (prayers) were said over them and explanations given for their presence. Then the boxes were taken to Aramoho Cemetery in hearses. They were reburied there, after a service, in donated graves.

Ms Sharpe said many museums worldwide used to collect human remains. The koiwi at Whanganui Regional Museum got there after eroding out of overhangs or dunes, being found accidentally during earthworks, being discovered during archaeological excavations, or being used in trading. Some were consciously dug out of graves by looters looking for grave goods.

Tribal leaders in the region have helped the museum make a plan to eventually rebury all such remains. In 2006 Ngati Apa reburied 11 koiwi items that had been in the museum.

There are still bones from around 70 other pieces, which need to be returned to iwi outside the region.