Home / News and Events / Media Releases / Prized Maori cloaks to be reconnected to their place of origin - 05/11/2015

Prized Maori cloaks to be reconnected to their place of origin - 05/11/2015

Scientists are planning to use geochemical fingerprinting to reveal the origin of prized Māori cloaks that currently have no known connection to a tribe or geographic region of New Zealand.

Karyne Rogers. Karyne Rogers. Image by Margaret Low GNS Scienceby Margaret Low GNS Science

Karyne Rogers. Image by Margaret Low GNS Science

They aim is to use environmental science and social science in combination with indigenous heritage studies as a forensic tool to reconnect national treasures to the place they were made and therefore, the descendants of the people who made them.

The project, led by GNS Science forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers, along with Te Papa textile conservator Rangi Te Kanawa, has won funding of $230,000-a-year for three years from the prestigious Marsden Fund.

Intricately woven Māori cloaks (kākahu) feature traditional black dyes derived from iron-rich muds (paru) which were applied to flax fibres during manufacture.

Many of these highly prized cloaks are held in museums, but it is unclear where they come from. Scientists have found that geochemical analysis of the dyes can be used to track the origin of the textiles used in the cloaks.

“Modern forensic techniques will help to restore the human linkages and historical relationships (whakapapa) in these textile treasures held in museums and private collections,” said Dr Rogers.

The scientists will focus on the trace elements in the iron-rich muds, which provide a unique fingerprint that will link them to particular parts of New Zealand. The scientific analysis will be undertaken at GNS Science’s National Isotope Centre in Lower Hutt.

One of the main aims of the project will be to build a database containing unique geochemical properties of dyes from sites across New Zealand.

“The database will help to reveal undiscovered relationships between individual paru pits and heritage textiles.”

This would enable reconnection of unprovenanced treasures back to iwi so they could restore and acknowledge the cultural importance of paru within their communities.

Scientists estimate that many of the 1000-plus marae in New Zealand would have had flax plantations and a paru site for the manufacture of cloaks and other textiles. Indeed, some are still in use today.

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We envisage our reconnection methods will allow overseas researchers to provenance fragile museum collections of black-dyed clothing, textiles, parchments, art and everyday objects.

Dr Karyne Rogers

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Dr Rogers will combine her skills in isotope analysis with her research partner Rangi Te Kanawa, who is a specialist preserving traditional Māori cloaks.

The research team will also interview key iwi members to increase the knowledge and understanding of traditional paru use.

Dr Rogers said museum collections of these prized textiles often had little or no information about past ownership or origin.

“Until now, it has been impossible to reconnect these dyed treasures back to their origins as traditional forensic techniques such as DNA are not geographically specific enough.

“The forensic techniques used in this project will not only benefit New Zealand, they will have international applications.

“We envisage our reconnection methods will allow overseas researchers to provenance fragile museum collections of black-dyed clothing, textiles, parchments, art and everyday objects.”

Dr Rogers said this would be the first time these reconnection techniques had been exploited, even though museums throughout the world had many examples of iron-tannate dyed objects with no provenance.

The scientists are hoping people will bring samples of mud from their marae as well as cloaks that they can work on. During the initial phase of the project, they will be ground-truthing their technique on textile dyes from known paru sites.

Dr Rogers’ project is one of four successful Marsden projects submitted by GNS Science in this year’s funding round.