Friday, 9 October 2015

Tuhua, the rock and the island

Obsidian from Mayor Island
Collection of Western Bay Museum, Ref. 0028
A small piece of obsidian in the Western Bay Museum collection is accompanied by a label identifying it as "obsidian rock from Mayor Island."  It is unclear whether the specimen was collected there or elsewhere.  Obsidian is a hard black volcanic glass formed by the rapid cooling of silica-rich lava. Tūhua, commonly referred to as Mayor Island, is an active shield volcano and one of the few places in New Zealand where obsidian occurs naturally. At least 52 volcanic eruptions have been documented by geologists as having occurred there in the last 130,000 years, although the last took place 6000 years ago. It is unusual for the diversity of eruption types, virtually every known style having been recorded, from Hawaiian fire-fountaining, to viscous lava domes, Plinian falls and ignimbrite ash flows.

The obsidian was highly prized by Maori for tool and weapon making in pre-colonial times, prior to the introduction of iron by pakeha in the early 1800s.  The valuable resources were fought over between various tribes on many occasions. As a result of the export trade, fragments of obsidian, also known as tūhua, may be found scattered along coastlines and sites of habitation throughout the country, and have been excavated from archaeological sites as far afield as Tiwai Point, near Bluff, and the Kermadec Islands.

Pumice, provenance unknown
Courtesy of Western Bay Museum, Ref. 0029

Pumice also occurs at Tūhua, for example forming a steep-sided cone at Tutaretare peak, although the provenance of this particular specimen from the museum is unrecorded.

Tūhua from the north-west, Unknown photographer and date
Collection of Flora Smith, Courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection

Dubbed "The Mayor" by Captain James Cook who anchored in its lee of its bush-clad hills on the night of 3rd November 1769, it is thought by some to have received its original name of Tūhua from an island of a similar shape in the ancestral homeland of Hawaiiki, now known as Me'etia and situated south-east of Tahiti.  It should be pointed out, however, that there is some disagreement about its origin, and several competing legends exist.

Tuhua (Mayor Island), Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
NZ Topographical Map 1:63,360 (1 inch to 1 mile) Mayor Island (Tuhua), 1977 edition
Sourced from LINZ. Crown Copyright reserved, Courtesy of National Library of New Zealand
The island of Tūhua is the ancestral home of Te Whānau A Tauwhao ki Tūhua and is administered by the Tūhua Trust Board. Permits and bookings must be obtained from the kaitiaki before landing on the island, and unauthorised removal of obsidian is prohibited.


Adams, E.L. (1969) Tuhua (Mayor Island), Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, Vol. 11, May 1969

Houghton, B.F.; Wilson, C.J.N.; Weaver, S.D.; Lanphere, M.A.; Barclay, J. 1995 Volcanic hazards at Mayor Island. [Palmerston North, NZ]: Ministry of Civil Defence. Volcanic hazards information series 6. 23 p.

Leask, A. (2009) Now add Tuhua Island rock to list of bad luck items, New Zealand Herald, 16 August 2009

Pos, H.G. (1961) Tuhua or Mayor Island, Its Importance to Maori History, New Zealand Archaeological Association Newsletter, Vol, 4 (2), March 1961, p. 79-81.

Tuhua (Mayor Island), Department of Conservation guide, brochure and map.

Mayor Island / Tuhua, Wikipedia

Traditional Story: The Struggle Between Tuhua and Pounamu, Tauranga Memories Kete

Traditional Story: Nga Patupaiarehe o Tūhua, Tauranga Memories Kete

NZ Topographical Map 1:63,360 (1 inch to 1 mile) Mayor Island (Tuhua), 1977 edition. Sourced from LINZ. Crown Copyright reserved

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