Open Friday - Tuesday, 10am - 4pm

Pumice Container

Ashleigh McLarin, Exhibitions Curator


On the 1st of April we opened our new exhibition in the Mim Ringer Gallery. It is called External Focus and it showcases examples of practical and decorative casings. There are several Taonga Māori objects on display including this container made from pumice, with pieces of charcoal inside (1984/226/14). In te reo, pumice can be referred to as pungapunga or tāhoata.

Pumice is a volcanic rock which is produced when lava cools and solidifies. During this process many gases are released which gives the pumice its aerated surface. Pumice is a distinct material, and it has prominent characteristics. It is quickly and easily worked; it is buoyant, and it is abrasive. These characteristics influenced the types of objects crafted by Māori as they utilised the natural materials around them.


This container is rectangular and has a lid that sits on top. It measures 148 x 110 x 78 mm. Its surface is smooth, and several sticks of charcoal rest inside. In a report on the use of pumice by Maori, Dianne Harlow suggests that the contents of items made from this material could possibly help suggest what they were used for.


Harlow notes that containers made from pumice were sometimes used to store pigment such as kokowai (red ochre) and charcoal. These pigments were used for rock painting. Charcoal was also used in Moko tattoos however it was a blended mix, with other materials to achieve a darker colour.


Archaeological digs have established that these containers were also used to hold tapu (sacred) objects such as huia feathers, skeletal remains, or hair from a child of ariki rank. Pumice was not always carved into containers, sometimes it was carved as a monument to a deceased Rangatira or to the gods. 


Pumice was also used by Māori as net floats or locator buoys, although light wood was another material that performed these tasks.  Like many of the other objects made from pumice these floats were most commonly found in the central North Island where it is abundant.


The container featured here was donated to the Museum by Dr Torrie, who had in turn received it from her father, Mr C. A. Strack. There is no information regarding where this container was found or acquired from.


If you would like to contribute further information about containers made from pumice or their usage please email


External Focus is on display until July 3rd.