Category Archives: New Zealand Hair Comb

Ebay: Whale Bone Maori Heru Comb

On Oct. 9, 2011, a dealer on E-bay listed this comb and described it as “Old African? Large “oxbone” comb; elegant!” The starting price was $9.95. He made himself look like an idiot beyond comprehension. Everyone who bid thought it was an old Māori whale-bone Heru comb. It ended up selling for $2576.00

However, the comb was dubious. The carving was not correct. The material had no grain. Whale bone has grain. Sperm-whale bone also has some grain.  Although I did not record the exact measurements, the comb’s size indicated that it could have only come from the ivory tooth of an elephant. A whale tooth couldn’t possibly have been that big.

Here is the front and the back of this fake comb.

The back showed that the coloration of the sides was not congruent with the potential age it was supposed to be. The spikes were too uneven. Also, it did not have a single nick on the edge.

Here is a real one: the front and back of a 19th Century whale-bone Heru comb from North Island, New Zealand, which is in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand. It is 65 mm wide and 165mm long. The carver is unknown.

This is a picture of how it was worn by a warrior. The picture also comes from the Museum of New Zealand. In Māori culture, men wore their hair long with a top knot. The Heru was inserted behind the top knot. These combs only decorated the heads of top-ranking men. They were a symbol of mana, or status and prestige.

There is a Māori myth surrounding Heru combs. In 1200, Rua-tupu, the second son of Chief Uenuku, wore a Heru without permission. These combs could only be worn by the elder sons. His father belittled him. To get revenge, Rua-tupu took children of tribal noblemen into his canoe, traveled far into the ocean, and sank the boat. It is an incident in Maori history called “Te huri-pure-i-ata.” His older brother, Kahutia-te-rangi survived with the help of a whale, and his name changed to Paikea, or whale rider. The myth says Paikea had the help of the goddess Moa-kura-manu.

Heru combs like these depict Kahutia-te-rangi, or Paikea (the small carving on the left) riding the whale.


With thanks to Mark Blackburn, Pierre Loos, Hugues Bienaymé, Charles Moreau, David Norden, Maureen Zarember, Jyrki Lammi, Guy Vdp, and Kajetan Fiedorowicz.

For more scholarly research, please examine

Te Ika a Maui: Or, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants. Illustrating the Orgin, Manners, Customs, Mythology, Religion … of the Maori and Polynesian … Productions, and Climate of the Country

Museum Combs: Egypt, New Zealand, India, and Germany

I would like to feature four museum combs today. The first comes from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It belonged to the King Wadj, whose name means serpent. His tomb was found near the ancient city of Abydos. He was the third King of the First Egyptian Dynasty and ruled c. 2920 BC. In the comb’s carvings, you can see two serpents.

Our next work was made by Maori master Patoromu Tamatea. This bone Heru comb resides in New Zealand’s Museum of Wellington’s City & Sea under the collector’s, instead of the artist’s name.

Next are two marvelously shaped combs from the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in South India. Both were made from the 18th to 19th Centuries.

And last is a breathtaking liturgical comb, which belonged to Saint Heribert (970 – 1021). He was Archbishop of Cologne (Köln) and considered a saint in his lifetime. Pope Gregory VII canonized him c. 1074. This crucifixion comb is one of the prizes in Köln’s Schnütgen Museum and was made in the second half of the 9th Century.


For more scholarly research, please examine

Pharaohs Of The First Dynasty Of Egypt, including: Menes, Narmer, Qa’a, Djer, Hor-aha, Djet, Den (pharaoh), Merneith, Anedjib, Semerkhet, Ancient Egyptian Boats (first Dynasty) – Abydos

Carved Histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Carving

Pune Culture, including: Kasba Ganapati, Sawai Gandharva Music Festival, Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Culture Of Pune, Sudarshan Rangmanch, Dagadusheth Halwai Ganapati Temple, Baajaa Gaajaa

Fragmented Devotion: Medieval Objects from the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne

To the great great grandaughter of Patoromu Tamatea: Dear Lily,

Your spirit holds a voice from the past. Thank you for the miracle.

The man who bought your great great grandfather’s whale bone comb is Kajetan Fiedorowicz — pioneer in the antiquities world, professional photographer, and author on this blog. Serendipity plays creative games with chance, doesn’t it?

Your note brought us all joyous surprise. He sent me another photo of Mr. Tamatea’s work to put on the blog as a present for you.

Have you ever seen this one? In it, your great great grandfather gave this Heru two different colored paua-shell eyes, one dark – one light, clearly symbolizing the sun and the moon. I hope you enjoyed discovering us, as much as we were thrilled to hear from you.

With blessings,g-


Kajetan also gave me a link to a Tamatea comb, which resides in the Maori section of the TeKakano Pacific Information Centre in the Auckland Museum. The listing says, “Source: Captain Gilbert Mair. Acquisition Date: 1890.”

In 1840, the year Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, New Zealand became part of the British Empire. Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. European settlers imposed their own economic and legal systems on the Maori, took most of the land, and left them impoverished. Seeing his genius in canoe carving, I have to wonder how much Captain Mair paid him.

I smell a rat, but have no original documents to prove it. However, I can say…

This priceless masterpiece in the Auckland Museum is a Tamatea, whose name is not listed on the information card, so I’m adding it.


For more scholarly research, please examine

Carved Histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Carving

and from the archives of Kajetan Fiedorowicz:
The Collection of the Tepapa Government in New Zealand
Museum of Wellington & Sea


Patoromu Tamatea was of the Ngati Tamateautahi, a sub-tribe of Ngati Pikia. He carved canoes. When that work ceased in 1864, he was involved in settling a dispute over pigs. In later life, he started carving wood items, including combs, for British Captain Gilbert Mair. Many of his carved figures are now in the Auckland Museum and in the Museum of New Zealand.

“Heru” is the Maori word for ‘comb.’  “Heru paraoa” means whalebone comb. In Maori culture (which has strongly informed developing NZ culture) a person’s head is “tapu,” or sacred, prohibited, restricted, under protection. The higher the rank of the person, the more tapu their head. Therefore, anything that came in contact with the head (like combs) was also tapu, and had to be treated with great care.

One of Tamatea’s combs just sold on ebay for $1825. I think if this went at Sothebys, someone would have paid over $10,000 for it.

I have rarely seen anything with this indelible level of drama, passion, boldness, inspiration, and courage. This is an unqualified masterpiece, expressing the soul of a tribal god. It was a privilege to see it. Made of bone, c. 1870, the inlay is native paua shell. The face exists on both sides of the comb. I also found another comb by this same artist, as well as a link to the wooden carving of the Madonna and Child, both of which are housed in the Museum of New Zealand. Mr. Tamatea died in 1890.