With winter fast approaching and the recent drop in temperatures, some people may be looking to warmer climes in exchange for the wintry seasons just ahead.

Having many Pacific islands in close proximity to New Zealand is one benefit of living Down Under. They are relatively cheap to visit and the hospitality by locals is heart-warming.

If, however, you are unable to get away to the islands for a quick break over winter, many museums have collections of Pacific and ethnographic items which can instantly transport you to these outer isles.

Whangārei Museum has just completed a review of the Ethnology collection which contains items from world cultures including the Pacific regions of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The collection contains a large number of weapons such as clubs and spears but there are also ceremonial, personal and domestic items.


Amongst the artefacts, staff uncovered some rather unusual looking pottery fragments and earthenware containers which piqued their interest.

Acquisition records indicate these items originated in Fiji and were gifted to the Whangārei Borough Council prior to 1960. Commonly known as saqamoli, these traditional drinking vessels are unique Melanesian artefacts which provide a glimpse of early Fijian domesticity.

Archaeological excavations reveal that pottery has been made in the Fijian archipelago dating back to the Lapita people over 3000 years ago. However, the earliest descriptions of pottery use in Fijian society result from observations in the 1800s. At this time, pottery was made by women with many regional variations in technique and style occurring.

Saqamoli are made from a mix of clay and sand, with surface decoration of pinched knobs, punctuations and incisions. After being formed, the vessels are allowed to dry in the shade for about a week after which they are fired in an open fire. A glaze-like appearance on the outside is obtained by painting or rubbing on makadre, the gum resin of a Pacific kauri tree while still hot from being fired.

Drinking vessels, usually with one or more spouts, vary in form with their shape often inspired by nature, the saqamoli imitating citrus fruits - grape like bunches of globular containers.

Regardless of form, all were held high and tilted so the water streamed out the spout into the drinker's mouth, this practice being dictated by a reluctance of Fijians to touch the vessel with their mouth. The sole exception being chiefs, whose drinking vessels were taboo.

Pottery containers were mainly used for cooking or storing food and liquids. Used throughout Fiji, they were bartered for barkcloth, mats and vegetables with trade transactions usually taking place by prior arrangement and on an intermittent basis.

While also valuable, earthenware receptacles were offered to the chiefs as tributes or presents or exchanged for other valuables during ceremonies on the occasion of births, marriages and deaths.

Fiji has always been a dynamic place of ethnic interactions and through trade and exchanges over centuries, traditional Fijian pottery has travelled long distances from its manufacturing origins. Some artefacts like the saqamoli at Kiwi North, eventually make their way into museum collections where they are held as a testament to indigenous Melanesian culture.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.