Category Archives: New Zealand Hair Comb

Ebay: Whale Bone Maori Heru Comb

According to our author-scholar Kajetan Fiedorowicz, the best Maori comb ever offered on Ebay sold on Oct. 9, 2011, for $2,576.00. It was a 17th-Century whale-bone Heru comb. The dealer listed it as “Old African? Large “oxbone” comb; elegant!” with a starting price of $9.95.

In Maori culture, men wore their hair long with a top knot, and women wore their hair short. A Heru is the ornament, stuck in the top knot, which decorated the heads of top-ranking men. They were a symbol of mana, or status and prestige. Many of the combs had faces, which were decorated with paua-shell eyes. (Search Patoromu Tamatea on the blog.)

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.

What I think this comb depicts is Kahutia-te-rangi (the small carving on the left) riding the whale. Think of the age, look at the condition, marvel at the orange patina on the whale bone. Absorb the simplicity of design, which expresses the profound mythology of Maori culture. The comb is a revelation. Kajetan hoped it went to a museum where it belongs. We will never know.

However, we have the picture. Our community will recognize this comb’s significance, history, and have yet another example that design reaches its greatest heights in simple forms.


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.