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Adze to’i

Adze to’i

Place: Tahiti & Society Islands
Category: Tools

wood, basalt, coconut fibre, Tahiti and the Society Islands, l. 53 cm (overall), l. 15.5 cm, w. 4.5 cm (blade), Inv. Oz 360

Forster Register A.12: ‘2 large stone axes from Otaheiti’ (cf. Hanover 1854, No.3)

The handle and the shaft are made of a piece of medium brown hardwood and firmly bound with coconut fibre to a blade made of fine-grained black basalt. The cutting edge of the blade is put cross-wise to the shaft, thus allowing the tool to be considered an adze. The blade is triangular in cross-section, with its profile determined at one end by the very finely finished triangular cutting surface. At the other end, the blade gradually tapers towards the shaft. The halfing of the blade to the angle-joint is lashed with braided, crossing-over cords made from coconut fibres, niu or ha’ari (Cocos nucifera).

According to Hinderling (1949: 156), the form of the blade corresponds to the ‘South-east type’ and is just as characteristic for the Society Islands and parts of Central Polynesia as the so-called ‘T-shaft’ (cf. Kaeppler 1978b: S1; Moschner 1955: 164; Augustin 1993: 71f.). Apart from shafts of the shape described, there was another type of shaft in the Society Islands composed of two parts and forming a longer ‘lever’ for the blade (cf. Kaeppler 1978a: 151, 149, Fig. 265).

In addition to knives made of bamboo splinters, mussel shells or shark’s teeth, adzes were among the most important tools in the Society Islands. The larger adzes were used to fell trees and to make boat planks as well as house beams, while the smallest were used in carving and polishing. Despite the hard volcanic rock, the cutting edge of the blade very quickly became blunt and had to be constantly re-sharpened on a flat whetstone under the application of water (Bunzendahl 1935: 76). Banks (1896: 156) ranked working with the adze, above all felling of trees, among the most strenuous activities in the Society Islands. Although adzes were valuable for the Maohi themselves, a large number of them came into the hands of the Europeans and were very quickly replaced with imported metal axes. As a consequence, adzes had almost completely disappeared in Tahiti by the time of Cook’s third voyage.

An adze of the Göttingen type is depicted in Parkinson (1773: 75, PI. 13, No. 9). The Parkinson specimen is exceptional in also having an interlining in the form of a piece of wood embedding the blade into the angle-joint. Specimens comparable to the Göttingen type have been documented by Moschner (1955: 164, Fig. 24), Söderström (1939: 28) and Kaeppler 1978a: 151f.). Gundolf Krüger


Augustin, Stephan, Kunstsachen von Cooks Reisen - Die Sammlung und ihre Geschichte im Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut, Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, 1993.

Banks, Joseph, Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks During Captain Cook’s First Voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71 to Terra del Fuego. Otahite, New Zealand, Australia, the Dutch East Indies etc., by Sir Joseph D Hooker, London, 1896.

Bunzendahl, Otto, Tahiti und Europa: Entdeckungsgeschichte der Gesellschaftsinseln, Studien zur Völkerkunde, Leipzig, 1935, vol. 8.

Hinderling, Paul, Uber steinzeitliche Beile der Südsee, Aarau, 1949.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978a.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, Cook Voyage Artifacts in Leningrad, Berne and Florence Museums, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978b.

Moschner, Irmgard, ‘Die Wiener Cook-Sammlung, Südsee-Teil’, Archiv für Völkerkunde, Vienna and Stuttgart, 1955, vol. 10, pp. 136-253.

Parkinson, Sydney, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in his Majesty’s Ship, the Endeavour, London, 1773.

Söderström, Jan, A. Sparrman’s Ethnographical Collection from James Cook’s 2nd Expedition (1772-75), New Series, Publication no. 6, The Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, 1939.

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