Stone in hand, sun. 1983, Culbert, Bill (1935– ), France. Gift of the artist, 1994. Te Papa

How were Toi moko preserved 

In the early twentieth century, the ethnographer Elsdon Best referred to the method of preserving Toi moko as pakipaki mahunga, a practice which required much skill and experience.  It was also regarded as tapu, so that throughout the process “neither the operator(s) nor the relatives were permitted to touch any food…”

A number of accounts describe the process of creating Toi moko, though all vary to some degree: 

Rev. R. Taylor

A missionary.  This description (here abbreviated) appears in both the Reverend’s own text (Te Ika A Maui: New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, 1855) and Major-General Robley’s text (Moko; or Maori Tattooing, 1896):

    1. Paki paki or popo: the brain was removed from the head
    2. The head was repeatedly steamed in an oven.  After each steaming, the head was carefully wiped with the flowers of the kakaho (reed), and all flesh and brain removed
    3. The head was dried in the sun
    4. The head was exposed to smoke
    5. The eyes were extracted, the sockets filled with flax, and the eyelids sewn together

Elsdon Best

A New Zealand-born ethnographer:

    1. The heads were subjected to a process of steaming.  “A steaming pit was made as it is for the cooking of food, but a small orifice was left for steam to escape by, and over this the head was placed”
    2. “All interior matter softened by the hot steam was disposed of by a shaking and probing process”
    3. “The skin was taken off below the line of decapitation to allow for contraction”
    4. “The eyes were extracted and the eyelids sewn down”
    5. “The loose flap of skin was tied underneath”
    6. “The final process was one of smoke drying.  Oil was rubbed on the head several times.  The hair was retained, and was dressed and decorated when the head was exposed to the public”

 Several accounts suggest that the head was rolled up in leaves before being placed in the earth oven. Another description mentions that the head was immersed in boiling water prior to entering the oven, causing “all the epidermis to disappear”. Small sticks were often inserted to maintain the shape of the nose, and were also used to “thrust flax, or the bark of trees, within the skin, so as to restore it to its former shape, and to preserve the features”. The lips were usually stitched together.


Orchiston, D. Wayne. “Preserved Human Heads of the New Zealand Maoris”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 76, 1967, pp. 297-329.

Best, Elsdon. The Maori, Vol. II, Wellington: Harry H. Tombs Ltd, 1924, p. 60-61.