Pounamu or greenstone are terms for several types of hard and durable stone found in southern New Zealand. They are highly valued in New Zealand, and carvings made from pounamu play an important role in Māori culture.
Geologically, pounamu are usually nephrite jade, bowenite, or serpentinite. The Māori classification of pounamu is by colour and appearance. The main classes are kawakawa, kahurangi, īnanga, and tangiwai. The first three are nephrite jade, while tangiwai is a form of bowenite.
- Īnanga pounamu takes its name from a native freshwater fish (Galaxias maculatus) and is pearly-white or grey-green in colour and varies from translucent to opaque.
- Kahurangi pounamu is highly translucent and has a vivid shade of green. It is named after the clearness of the sky and is the rarest variety of pounamu.
- Kawakawa pounamu comes in many shades, often with flecks or inclusions, and is named after the leaves of the native kawakawa tree (Macropiper excelsum). It is the most common variety of pounamu.
- Tangiwai pounamu is clear like glass but in a wide range of shades. The name comes from the word for the tears that come from great sorrow.
In modern usage pounamu almost always refers to nephrite jade. Pounamu is generally found in rivers in specific parts of the South Island as nondescript boulders and stones.
Significance to Māori
Pounamu plays a very important role in Māori culture and is a taonga (treasure). It is and has been an important part of trade between the South Island Ngāi Tahu iwi (tribe) and other iwi. Adze blades made from pounamu was desired for carving of wood, and even with the arrival of metal tools pounamu tools were used. These were often reworked into hei tiki and other taonga when they were no longer useful for carving wood. After the arrival of Ngāi Tahu to South Island in the middle of the 18th-century production of pounamu increased. Pounamu crafting and trade was important to the economy of Ngāi Tahu.
Pounamu taonga increase in mana (prestige) as they pass from one generation to another. The most prized taonga are those with known histories going back many generations. These are believed to have their own mana and were often given as gifts to seal important agreements.
Pounamu taonga include tools such as toki (adzes), whao (chisels), whao whakakōka (gouges), ripi pounamu (knives), scrapers, awls, hammer stones, and drill points. Hunting tools include matau (fishing hooks) and lures, spear points, and kākā poria (leg rings for fastening captive birds); weapons such as mere (short handled clubs); and ornaments such as pendants (hei-tiki, hei matau and pekapeka), ear pendants (kuru and kapeu), and cloak pins. Functional pounamu tools were widely worn for both practical and ornamental reasons, and continued to be worn as purely ornamental pendants (hei kakī) even after they were no longer used as tools.
Pounamu is found only in the South Island of New Zealand, known in Māori as Te Wai Pounamu ('The [land of] Greenstone Water') or Te Wahi Pounamu ('The Place of Greenstone'). In 1997 the Crown handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu (or Kai Tahu), as part of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement.
Geological formation and location
Pounamu has been formed in New Zealand in four main locations; the West Coast, Fiordland, western Southland and the Nelson district. It is typically recovered from rivers and beaches where it has been transported to after being eroded from the mountains. The group of rocks where pounamu comes from are called ophiolites. Ophiolites are slices of the deep ocean crust and part of the mantle. When these deep mantle rocks (serpentinite) and crustal rock (mafic igneous rocks) are heated up (metamorphosed) together, pounamu can be formed at their contact.
The Dun Mountain Ophiolite Belt has been metamorphosed in western Southland and pounamu from this belt is found along the eastern and northern edge of Fiordland. The Anita Bay Dunite near Milford Sound is a small but highly prized source of pounamu. In the Southern Alps, the Pounamu Ultramafic Belt in the Haast Schist occurs as isolated pods which are eroded and found on West Coast rivers and beaches.
Jewellery and other decorative items made from gold and pounamu were particularly fashionable in New Zealand in the Victorian and Edwardian years in the late 19th and early 20th century. It continues to be popular among New Zealanders and is often given as gifts. In 2011, the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key presented the President of the United States Barack Obama a waihaika (a type of Māori weapon) created from pounamu carved by New Zealand artist Aden Hoglund.
An exhibition curated by Te Papa in 2007 called Kura Pounamu showcased 200 pounamu items from their collections and linked New Zealand and China through both the geographical location of nephrite and also the high level of artistry achieved in ancient China and then thousands of years later amongst Māori. The exhibition marked 40 years of diplomatic relations between countries when it toured to five venues in China in 2013.
In the 2016 animated movie Moana the central premise is to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti which is manifest in a pounamu stone amulet.
Fossicking for Pounamu is a cultural activity in New Zealand and allowed on designated areas of the West Coast of the South Island (Te Tai o Poutini) and is limited to what can be carried unaided; fossicking elsewhere in the Kai Tahu tribal area is illegal, while nephrite jade can be sourced legally and freely from Marlborough and Nelson. In 2009 David Anthony Saxton and his son Morgan David Saxton were sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment for stealing greenstone, with a helicopter, from the southern West Coast.
- Ear pendant (pekapeka), Māori people, pounamu and red sealing wax
- A portrait of Wahanui Reihana Te Huatare carrying a mere and wearing a hei-tiki made of pounamu
- A portrait of Rangi Topeora, wearing numerous pounamu items.
- Nephrite pounamu hei-tiki
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