Two writing slates used in 1830s Kerikeri by young women at the forefront of Maori literacy have been added to a United Nations register of the world's most important historic documents.

The slates — which were discovered in 2000 under a lean-to at Kemp House, New Zealand's oldest surviving building — were among eight collections from around the country added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register this week.

One slate was used by Rongo Hongi, daughter of the renowned Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika and his wife Turikatuku. It is inscribed with lines and signed at the bottom with "Na Rongo Hongi, a[ged] 16".

A slate dating to around 1830 etched with Rongo Hongi's signature and age. Photo / Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga
A slate dating to around 1830 etched with Rongo Hongi's signature and age. Photo / Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga

Rongo lived with the Kemp family at Kerikeri Mission Station as a young girl in the 1820s and again after the death of her father in 1828, when she attended a girls' school run by Martha Clarke, wife of missionary George Clarke.

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The second slate is permanently inscribed with a waiata whakautu (a song of reply to an accusation) of a type composed by women of the Hokianga.

The author is not known but it is believed she was another young Māori woman attending the mission school.

A slate dating from around 1830 with a permanently inscribed Māori waiata. Photo / Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga
A slate dating from around 1830 with a permanently inscribed Māori waiata. Photo / Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga

Both slates were found, along with other relics, under the floorboards of a lean-to built in 1830-31.

According to the nomination form submitted to UNESCO by Heritage NZ and Ngā Uri o Hongi (the descendants of Hongi Hika), the Kerikeri Mission Te Reo Slates had ''outstanding rarity value'' as the only known slates with Māori writing of that era and because they illustrated the development of early Māori literacy.

Rongo Hongi's signature was a direct, physical connection to her presence at the Kerikeri Mission School and is the earliest known text written by a Māori woman.

The slates are kept at Kerikeri Mission Station, where they can be viewed by appointment, and are looked after by Heritage NZ on behalf of the Crown and Ngāpuhi.

Memory of the World New Zealand Trust chairman Bruce Ralston said documentary heritage took many different forms, as shown by the eight new additions to the register.

''It's valuable for our sense of identity. It records our history and helps us understand how we have become the society we are. But it is fragile and can be taken for granted,'' he said.

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Other collections added this week include the photo archive of photographer Marti Friedlander and the papers of athlete Jack Lovelock.