New Zealand's oldest wooden carving, which is a taonga for Far North iwi Te Rarawa, is returning to the country this weekend after being part of Oceania, the world's biggest exhibition of Pacific works.

Tangonge, also known as the Kaitaia Lintel, has been on display at Oceania, an exhibition showcasing 500 years of Pacific art in London and Paris, and will return to New Zealand on Sunday.

Carved from totara and dating to the 14th to 16th centuries, Tangonge was discovered in 1920 when Lake Tangonge, between Kaitaia and Ahipara, was drained.

In 2012 it was taken to Pukepoto Marae before going on display at Te Ahu for a year. Auckland War Memorial Museum director Roy Clare described it at the time as an important link in New Zealand history because of its difference in form and style to the carving that followed.

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"Historically and culturally it is hugely significant, which is why it holds such an important place in our museum," he said.

"It also holds massive significance for the people of Te Rarawa, Te Tai Tokerau and the Far North ... The return of the carving is recognition of the bond this taonga forges between the museum as its custodian, the people of Te Rarawa, its spiritual guardians, and Te Ahu."

Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said the last time the taonga was lent to Te Rarawa, for one week, it had had a striking effect on the iwi's spirit and morale. The one-year loan would make a major contribution to empowering iwi, an essential element for the community development of whanau and hapu.

Workers drain Tangonge wetlands, in the Far North, when the country's oldest wooden carving was discovered.
Workers drain Tangonge wetlands, in the Far North, when the country's oldest wooden carving was discovered.

It is usually on display in Auckland War Memorial Museum's He Taonga Māori gallery but it has been loaned out to Oceania.

It will be go back to the museum on Sunday with representatives of Te Rarawa conducting the welcome.

Tangonge will go back to Auckland Museum's He Taonga Te Māori gallery after its Big OE.
Tangonge will go back to Auckland Museum's He Taonga Te Māori gallery after its Big OE.

The carving shows how Māori art evolved from its Polynesian origins and has a central figure with outward-facing manaia motifs at each end, like later door lintels.

However, Tangonge is unique in that both sides are fully carved, suggesting it may have stood over a gateway.