When you visit a museum, both in New Zealand and abroad, the items you see on display are fascinating and diverse but these are often just a snippet of the cultures and lives that they descend from.

This is particularly notable for many cultures across Africa, South America, Australia, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand who produced a smaller range of items from materials that survive for long periods in the archaeological record.

Bone and stone tools and ornaments are common in these cultures but materials which had to be more heavily altered, mixed or otherwise processed such as ceramics and metal are less common.

While the ethnic groups of Polynesia have had strong ceramic traditions since their first colonisation about 1500-2000 years ago, the east Polynesian settlers of New Zealand did not practice these skills here.


This anomaly becomes clear when you think of the natural landscape early settlers encountered here - large expanses of shrub and forest covered hills, including the massive kauri and totara trees; very different to some of the atoll and volcanic island environments they set out from.

As such, the vast array of ornamental items and tools needed for everyday customary and utilitarian purposes were produced from Aotearoa's most abundant natural materials: wood and grasses.

Stone and bone were also crucial for producing heavier wearing objects, many of which have lasted hundreds of years of burial until they were discovered and turned into the care of iwi or museums.

Luckily some examples of kahu (clothes), mats, rope, musical instruments, walking sticks, weapons and various other items made of organic materials have lasted in very damp (swamp) or very dry (caves) environments or have been made and passed down within living generations.

One very small such artefact that has survived particularly well (1986/197/476/2) is cared for by Whangarei Museum.

Since this artefact was donated to the museum it has been described as a coil of flax and kept among similar rolls of flax strips or muka (flax fibre).

While researching for the 2018 Māori new year' Puanga exhibition, Kiwi North staff rediscovered this neat little coil and identified it as a tetere or flax trumpet.

While instruments of the musical family of Rangi-melodic instruments- such as pūtātara (conch-shell trumpet) and kōauau (flute) are commonly known taonga puoro (Māori musical instruments), the tetere appears less often.


One flax tetere was recovered from a late 14th century occupation of Moa-bone Point Cave in Redcliffs, Christchurch, below which moa, fish and bird bones, shell midden, stone adzes, flakes, and several other significant wooden and raupō or flax items were uncovered.

These flax trumpets are rare due to their function being a quick and easy to make instrument, simply a split flax leaf coiled concentrically with each coil overlapping and tied off with a thin flax strip (tauhere). The key was the flax being fresh and green.

Once the material dried out, the tetere lost its shape and was discarded. Sometimes it would be kept in water to prolong its life.

Temporary musical instruments like this were made by children playing games and for signalling upon the arrival of important visitors or in battle.

Thus it is the rarer artefacts made from plant materials of wood, leaves, roots, flowers, bark, stem, seeds, husks and animal products of hair, feathers, and skin that perhaps provide more insight into the variety, depth, and beauty of the earlier periods of New Zealand history.

We are lucky to have several Pacific and New Zealand examples of these types of treasures in our collection.

By Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North exhibitions curator Georgia Kerby