University of Aberdeen Takes you to the main page for this section

latest releases | archive

University returns Maori ancestors to New Zealand

The University of Aberdeen’s collection of tattooed Maori heads (toi moko) will return to their ancestral home of New Zealand today (Monday, January 29).

Staff of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa are taking possession of the nine toi moko (tattooed preserved heads) that have been in the possession of the University's Marischal Museum since the 1820s. 

The University follows a standard procedure when responding to a request for repatriation. This protocol was demonstrated in 2003 when a sacred head-dress was returned to the Kainai Nation/Blood Tribe in Canada. The repatriation procedure involves an expert panel who will consider various issues, for example, the history, the status of the people making the request and the importance of the item being requested, before the University Court make a decision. Last year, the University Court agreed to the panel's unanimous recommendation that the toi moko be repatriated to the care of Te Papa.

Te Papa will now care for the toi moko according to protocols established with their Maori elders. They will also undertake research into the toi moko's history and provenance.

Te Taru White, Kaihautü (Mäori Co-Leader) of Te Papa said that it is heartening that so many museums and other institutions are agreeing to the return home of these ancestors.  He said: "Te Papa is very grateful to Marischal College staff and the Court of the University for their agreement to repatriate these ancestral remains.  Their support will enable these ancestors to make the long journey home to New Zealand and to their people.

"This is both a time for sad reflection on the turbulent journeys these ancestors experienced and, at the same time, a cause for joy as they are returned to their homeland."

Once they are back in New Zealand, the tüpuna (ancestors) will rest in Te Papa's wähi tapu (consecrated sacred space) until research is able to confirm their iwi (tribe) of origin.  Te Papa undertake several repatriations to iwi each year of returned tüpuna.  In recent years, Te Papa has repatriated köiwi tangata (human remains) to Moeraki (Ngäi Tahu), Rangitane ki Wairau, Ngäti Kurï, Muaupoko and Whanganui.

Neil Curtis, Senior Curator of the University's Marischal Museum, said: "I am very pleased that we have decided to repatriate the toi moko. Not only are they once again going to be treated as ancestors, they will also now be studied and researched in ways that were not possible if they had stayed in Aberdeen. This marks a new stage in the links between Aberdeen and New Zealand."

The earliest record of toi moko being acquired by the University was in 1821, when Lieutenant Reid of the Royal Navy presented a 'Head of New Zealand warrior in good preservation'.

Facial tattooing is an important element of traditional Maori life, with complex and beautiful tattoos showing identity and status. Traditionally, after death the heads of revered ancestors were preserved by their kin. During the early 19th century contact between Maori people and European explorers, traders and colonists led to conflict and disruption of Maori society. This included the growth in trade of Maori treasures and toi moko and to satisfy this demand the heads of slaves were tattooed and sold.

The New Zealand Government, through Te Papa, is now supporting Maori attempts to return all toi moko to their ancestral home where they can again be treated as the remains of ancestors instead of being curiosities in museums around the world.


Notes to Editors

Issued by the Communications Team, Office of External Affairs, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen. Tel: (01224) 272014.

Issued on: Monday 29th of January 2007

Ref: 3037TePapaAberdeen
Contact: Angela Ferguson

<< back

University Switchboard: +44 (0)1224 272000
Enquiries about studying at The University of Aberdeen should be directed to