There was joy and pride as Northland iwi Te Rarawa welcomed back a priceless taonga that has been on a global journey to help expose Pacific culture to the world.

Marking the end of a 38,000km journey, New Zealand's oldest wooden carving "Tangonge" returned to the country on Sunday to be warmly welcomed in a pōwhiri with Te Rarawa and staff at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tamaki Paenga Hira.

Around 80 Te Rarawa members joined the celebration to receive the taonga back into the country after it featured as a key display in the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London and Musee du Quai Branly in Paris from September 2018 to July 2019.

"It's wonderful that our lintel has represented our history and our people internationally, on the world stage, and been widely admired and appreciated," Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said.


Tangonge was specifically requested as a signature work at the Oceania exhibition for its historic significance in linking Aotearoa to eastern Polynesia, and its special importance to Te Rarawa and Māori people today.

"I think it's an opening for New Zealanders to take more interest, as it is the oldest wooden carving in the country," Piripi said.

"It deserves to be honoured and revered as an iconic taonga for us all, not just Māori but for New Zealanders generally. And we're happy to share in that with New Zealanders, displaying it across the international world stage."

Waikarere Gregory, Artist and Te Rarawa Trustee who travelled with Tangonge abroad said seeing the treasure displayed amongst the other taonga in the exhibition brought a real sense of pride.

"In both exhibitions it was one of the leading pieces that really brought you into the space, a great opening piece to have on display," she said.

"Journeying through that exhibition you could see the connections and see our tūpuna and their migrations through the islands. Everywhere you looked you saw a piece of Tangonge. You see the bigger picture of how, although we might be surrounded by water on these little islands, there's really not a lot between us at all. The next journey will be its return hopefully, home to the north," she said.

Discovered in 1920 when Lake Tangonge, between Kaitaia and Ahipara, was drained, is usually displayed at the Auckland War Memorial Museum's He Taonga Maori gallery. It is believed to have been carved from totara some time between the 14th and 16th centuries.