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Published 14 February 2020

Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! Raise up again the billowing sail! Revitalising cultural knowledge through analysis of Te Rā, the Māori sail

Dr Donna Campbell (left) and Mrs Ranui Ngarimu (right) examining Te Rā at the British Museum in January 2019. Image: Adam Rowley

Te Rā is the sole remaining customary Māori sail. An oceanic spritsail, she is held in the collection of the British Museum, London and was possibly collected by Cook

Authors: Catherine Smith, Donna Campbell and Ranui Ngarimu

The discovery of Aotearoa was an unrivalled feat of ocean-going navigation, and while many aspects of Māori voyaging have been re-invigorated, a Māori sail had never been systematically studied or documented until this project. This Marsden Fund grant has therefore created the opportunity to apply innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary research techniques to understanding Te Rā for the first time.


Engagement with Te Rā from a Māori cultural perspective is the foundation of the project and ensures that appropriate tikanga is followed. Dr Donna Campbell (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Ruanui) and Mrs Ranui Ngarimu (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mūtunga), are weaving practitioners with extensive experience in the revitalisation of cultural knowledge. The project team visited the British Museum in January 2019, taking with them weaving samplers they had created previously to help to fully understand the weave structure of Te Rā. The highly complex weave, with a three-way pattern that extends through the hiki (joins) and panels of the sail, is not seen elsewhere in Māori weaving. To enable contextualisation of Te Rā, Mātauranga Māori, archival, pictorial, and material culture research is ongoing. The team are interviewing navigation and sailing experts to enhance understanding of Māori sails and sailing.


Mrs Ranui Ngarimu examining Te Ra at the British Museum London. Photo by Adam Rowley

Mrs Ranui Ngarimu examining Te Ra at the British Museum London. Image: Adam Rowley

Another important aspect of the project is to identify the materials used in the construction of Te Rā. Hokimate Harwood, an expert on New Zealand feather identification, used a number of methods to identify the feathers used on Te Rā. Firstly, she undertook detailed imaging, measurements and recording of macroscopic feather characteristics such as size, shape, colour and patterning of feather shafts, the downy barbs at the feather base, and feather vanes. Then, microscopic sections of feather down were sampled from the base of some feathers. Finally, comparisons were made between the sail feathers and previously collected reference image databases of bird skins, feathers, and feather down. She has been able to confirm that the small red feathers from the grommet style rings (loops) around the sail’s outer edges are the small covert underwing feathers of kākā (Nestor meridionalis ssp.). The larger brown feathers along the top and matairangi (streamer) of Te Rā are from kāhu (Circus approximans; mostly wing feathers) and kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae; mostly tail feathers). 


Harakeke fibres viewed using PLM Polarised Light Microscope

Harakeke fibres viewed using PLM (Polarised Light Microscope)

The work of identifying the plants from which Te Rā is made was accomplished by Dr Catherine Smith, using Polarised Light Microscopy (PLM) and a previously developed New Zealand plant materials reference database. While at the British Museum in January, she collected 15 samples of plant fibre and strip from various locations over the surface of Te Rā, with permission from the British Museum Scientific Research Committee. Once back in New Zealand, the plant material was macerated to reveal the ultimate fibre cells, and their morphological characteristics and optical properties were examined using PLM. Morphological characteristics include the length, shape and appearance of the cells, while optical properties relate to the structure of the cell and the appearance of those structures when exposed to light, and include using tests like the modified Herzog test, which shows the twist of the fibre. A number of tests were carried out on each sample, and when the results were combined and compared with the reference material, identification was possible; harakeke (New Zealand flax) forms all of the fibre and plant material used in the construction of Te Rā.


Image 2 Image of Te Ra showing sample locations for plant materials identificaton

Image of Te Ra showing sample locations for plant materials identificaton

The project team recently travelled to the Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa National Weavers Hui, held at Ngā Hau e Wha Marae in Christchurch, 25-28 October 2019, to disseminate information to weavers about the materials identification they have carried out, and their progress at understanding the form and structure of Te Rā. The next phase of the project is undertaking photogrammetry, which is a tool that can create 3D models of artefacts, useful for preservation, further analysis (like Computational Fluid Dynamics), and for display and exhibition. They will also be using Reflectance Transformation Imaging, which works through a combination of mathematical enhancement of the surface of the artefact. It reveals surface information that is not apparent from direct examination of the physical object. The team, will be using these tools with the help of Cultural Heritage Imaging, a San-Francisco-based not-for-profit specialising in imaging technology for cultural material.


Dr Catherine Smith foreground and Hokimate Harwood in the SEM imaging suite at the British Museum London. Adam Rowley

Dr Catherine Smith (foreground) and Hokimate Harwood in the SEM imaging suite at the British Museum London. image: Adam Rowley

The connection of Māori to Te Rā is a spiritual and holistic one. As a taonga tuku iho, Te Rā embodies knowledge of the past that is relevant to contemporary cultural revitalisation. This research project will help reconnect Te Rā with cultural narratives, contextualise its significance and allow all New Zealanders access to this important taonga.

Additional information: Te Rā project blog

Additional information: Te Rā project Facebook page