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These carved wooden panels (called poupou) are typical of the type of panel made for Māori community meeting houses in New Zealand. There was no written language in pre-colonial Māori society. Traditional knowledge was passed down through stories and visual art, so art and design forms an important part of Māori identity and culture, and is full of meaning and symbolism.

Carvings on poupou panels represent the ancestors of the carver, the belief being that the carved figures will watch over people gathering in the meeting houses, and ward off evil spirits. The carvings also act as a spiritual connection between the tribe and their ancestors. It is thought that the carver of these panels was Hone Ngatato of the Ngāti Porou people of the East Cape and Gisborne regions of the North Island of New Zealand.

These poupou panels are unusual in that they were never in fact used in a meeting house. They were commissioned in 1867 for display at The Crystal Palace in London.

Communal meeting houses

Tānenuiarangi, the wharenui at Waipapa marae, University of Auckland

Tānenuiarangi, the wharenui at Waipapa marae, University of Auckland

Communal meeting houses (or wharenui) have an important place in Māori culture. Although they are not churches or specifically built for worship, religious rituals (such as weddings and funerals) often take place in front of, or inside, a meeting house. The houses are carved inside and out with stylised images representing the ancestors of the tribe.

Class activity: first impressions

This could be a whole class discussion activity or you could split the class into smaller groups. 

Ask your students to look at these images of the poupou wall panels and describe their first impressions.

Use these prompt questions to get the discussion going:

  • what can you see?
  • what do the images make you feel?
  • what do you think the panels are made from?
  • how do you think they were made?
  • how old do you think they are?
  • where do you think they were made?
  • what do you think they are for?

What did we discover?

Discuss the video with your students. These questions might be helpful:

  • where were the panels made?
  • who made them?
  • what were panels like this made for?
  • how were they made? What techniques and tools were used?
  • who are the figures carved onto the panel?
  • why do you think the figures have scary faces?

Have a go! 

Taking inspiration from children in the video, as a class have a go at doing the All Blacks' Haka. Here are some tips:

What can we learn about Māori culture and religion from these panels?

Who are the Māori people?

Ensure that your students understand where New Zealand is and who the Māori people are. The Māori were the indigenous settlers of Polynesian origin, arriving in New Zealand in the early to the mid-fourteenth century. This children's encyclopedia article might be helpful for background research. 

Maori religion and ancestor worship (whakapapa)

Although at the beginning of the nineteenth century many Māori people converted to Christianity, the traditional religion and gods are still a vital and relevant part of Māori culture and belief.

Central to the Māori belief system is that all living things are connected through common descent or genealogy. Whakapapa (pronounced 'fakapapa') is the word used in Māori culture to describe the importance of genealogy. The word whakapapa means literally to stack – to lay one upon another. It describes the layers of family that build up the past, the present and the future. Whakapapa is also a way for people to understand their place in their family, tribe and wider community.

As genealogy and connectivity were central to pre-Christian Māori religion, ancestor worship is an important part of traditional Māori culture and belief. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors can be called upon to help them in times of need and to protect them from harm.

Discussion: what is ancestor worship?

School visit to Perth Museum & Art Gallery

School visit to Perth Museum & Art Gallery

In the video, we discovered that the figures in the panels represent the ancestors of the carver. Ask your students:

  • what is an ancestor?
  • why are they carved onto the panels? What is their role? 
  • the figures look as if they are linked – or are standing on the shoulders of each other; what do you think the carver is suggesting by depicting the figures like this?

Questions guidance

  • It might help to explain what an ancestor is, and how we are linked to past generations, by thinking about a family tree – ask your students who their relatives are and how they are related to them.
  • The role of the carved ancestors is to watch over and protect the people in the meeting house and to connect people with their ancestors. 
  • The column of linked figures suggests how families and generations, going back to grandparents and great-grandparents and forward to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are all linked. (This interview with England football team performance coach Owen Eastwood, who is of Māori origin, helps explain the concept of whakapapa: 'Each of us is part of an unbreakable chain of people, back into our past to our first ancestors, and into the future, to the end of time. Everybody has their arms interlocked so it’s an unbreakable chain'.)

Pattern, shapes and symbols

As well as carved figures, the poupou panels include lots of patterns and shapes. 

Discuss the patterns and shapes with your students using these prompts if helpful:

  • think of words to describe the different types of pattern
  • are they curved or straight?
  • what shapes can you see?
  • are the patterns repeated?

What is a symbol?

Make sure that your students understand what a symbol is. To help explain, you could ask them about symbols we see around us every day – e.g. the symbols used in road signs. You could also discuss the symbols used to reflect cultural identity, such as in Scotland: the saltire, the thistle and the unicorn.

Māori symbols and pattern


This symbol in Māori pattern is called the koru. Ask your students if they can spot it in the carvings.

Koru symbol

Koru symbol

The koru is inspired by the shape of an unfurling fern leaf and symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace.

A close-up photograph of an unfurling fern frond

A close-up photograph of an unfurling fern frond


The tiki is another Māori symbol. The tiki is a symbol of fertility and is a good luck charm. It is also used to represent ancestors, with each tiki being unique to a tribal area and usually to a family. The tiki is often worn as a pendant. (If you look at the carvings very carefully you might spot that one of the figures is wearing a tiki pendant.)

Māori Greenstone Tiki / Ngāti Porou House Panel (Poupou)

Māori Greenstone Tiki / Ngāti Porou House Panel (Poupou)

unknown artist / Hone Ngatoto (1835/1845–1928)

Rauponga and pakati

Most of the carving on the panels is formed of bands of pattern – repeated triangular-shaped notches within parallel grooves and ridges. This type of pattern is called rauponga. It was used extensively by the Ngāti Porou carvers and references the pattern seen on the leaves of the ponga tree. The rows of triangular shapes are called pakati. The pataki is thought to represent warriors and courage.


Religion and protection

Check that your students understand the protective role that the carved poupou panels were believed to have in Māori culture.

  • Ask them if they can think of any examples of ways in which believers in the religions they have studied in CfE L2 / KS2 might feel that their faith provides them protection.
  • Discuss with them what might be the positive and negative effects of believing that supernatural power can protect us from harm.

Cultural comparison: gargoyles and corbels

Architectural features, such as waterspouts and corbels (supporting brackets) on churches and other historical buildings in Scotland and the rest of the UK, are often carved with faces and figures. Sometimes carved faces on buildings represent VIPs (royalty, local wealthy families or church figures). But often the faces are frightening – showing ferocious animals or people with leering expressions.

  • Ask your students if they have ever seen faces carved into buildings and what types of buildings might have carved faces.
  • Take a look at this Art UK Curation to explore more examples of carved corbels.


Activity: compare and contrast

Task students with comparing a gargoyle with a face on a poupou panel. You could split the students into small groups for this, or discuss the similarities and differences as a whole class.

Grotesque Head

Grotesque Head (corbel) c.1125–1150

unknown artist

Victoria and Albert Museum

Ngāti Porou House Panel (Poupou)

Ngāti Porou House Panel (Poupou)

Hone Ngatoto (1835/1845–1928)

How are they similar? How are they different? Here are some thoughts:

  • the sculptures are similar in that they both show faces
  • they were both made for buildings, to protect those inside, and ward off evil spirits
  • they were both made using carving techniques
  • they are different because the Māori panel represents an ancestor (so has meaning beyond protecting the building)
  • the gargoyle is made from stone and the poupou panel from wood
  • the Māori panels are carved with intricate patterns and symbols; the gargoyles are plainer


Explore carving techniques and materials

Christine Kowal Post demonstrating wood carving

Christine Kowal Post demonstrating wood carving

The poupou panels are carved from wood using an axe and a chisel. The artist used an axe to form the basic rough shape of the panel, and a chisel to create the details. Ask your students:

  • can you think of any other materials that can be carved to make sculptures?
  • if you were going to carve a block of wood or stone how would you start?

Watch these videos of sculptors at work with your class, and find out how they use tools and materials to carve sculptures.

Sculptors' techniques: Christine Kowal Post

Sculptors' techniques: Halima Cassell

Activity: have a go at carving!

Task your students with putting what they have learned about carving into practice, by carving a gargoyle face from soap. Get some soap carving tips from this Tate Kids resource.

Extension activities

Architectural sculpture near you

Are there any buildings near your school that are decorated with faces, figures or patterns? Task your students with:

  • researching the building and finding out when it was built, what it was built for and (if known) who made the sculptures
  • recording the sculptures with photographs or drawings
  • deciding whether the sculptures relate to the use of the building (are they allegorical figures? Are they gargoyle-like faces, that might have been added to protect the building and its users?)

Cultural comparison: Celtic symbols

Compare Celtic symbols with Māori symbols. (There is no direct connection between the two cultures, but exploring the similar use of symbols might help students to connect with other cultures and beliefs.)

Explore modern and contemporary artworks inspired by Celtic symbols:

Steve Allard & Rose Garrard, Malvinha, 1998
Raymond Pope, Celtic Moons, 1962
Robert Hunter, Celtic Icon, 1963
Alan Davie, Celtic Landscape (Dreamscape), 1996

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