This massive pā, still visible today and situated 3 km from the Tawhiti Museum, in the Taranaki region, was built over 400 years ago by Ngatī Tupaea, a hapū (sub-tribe or clan, the basic political unit within Māori culture) of Ngāti Ruanui.
Wherever possible a pa would take advantage of natural defences – steep hills and cliffs, river or coastal perimeter etc. However there was almost always a need to improve defences with strong wooden fences (tuwatawata ) and deep trenches. Turuturu Mokai was not a particularly steep site, so great effort went into triple rows of trenches and palisades.
The site is an extremely large and awe-inspiring set of Maori earthworks built in the 17th century by the Ngāti Tupea, and restored in the 1930s. In pre-European times a battle was fought there between the Ngati Tupea garrison of about 1000 men and a raiding party of Taki Ruahine (a sub-tribe of the Ngāti Ruanui).
A strategem was used during a time of relative peace, and Tūraukawa Poroa, a Ngāti Taki Ruahine rangatira (chief), organised a tohunga-te-moko, or Maori tattoo artist to be placed at the pā, offering to tattoo the warriors of the garrison, in particular on the buttocks and thighs. They accepted. Maori facial and body tattooing is a long and painful operation, after which the tattooed is incapacitated for a few days.
With the Ngāti Tupea so rendered, the Taki Ruahine came and took the pa with great slaughter. They decapitated the Ngāti Tupea dead and impaled their severed and smoke-dried heads on stakes thrust into the ground. Soon afterwards the pa was declared tapu and vacated, a tapu not removed until 1938. The name Turuturu Mokai indicated the stakes on which the heads of the slain enemy were mounted to warn prospective attackers of their likely fate.
Built in a loop of the Tawhiti stream, the main pā was ringed by five adjacent smaller pā – only one of which exists today. One of those was connected to the main pā by a tunnel under the Tawhiti stream.
The pā’s fortifications included a series of ditches and palisades, augmented by watchtowers to provide early warning of attack. Stones were placed ready to hand to drop on invaders.
Two of the smaller Pā beside Turuturu Mokai Pā
Eels (tuna ) were a vital part of an inland pā’s diet, but the streams and swamps also supplied freshwater mussels and crayfish, whitebait, watercress, and a range of freshwater fish.
There were three main methods of storing food and other valued objects – in elevated store houses (pataka ), elevated platforms (whata ), and underground pits (rua ). Some pataka were elaborately carved.
The four main plants cultivated were kumara, gourd, yam, and taro. In Taranaki, sand and gravel were often added to the soil to improve drainage and help raise soil temperature. Fences were built to keep out swamp birds, to act as wind breaks, and to delineate family plots.
Cooking fires and heating meant that dry firewood was in constant demand. With a large population, it would have been necessary to gather wood from increasingly greater distances, as shown here by the people carrying bundles of firewood to the pā.
The bush would supply many foods to supplement cultivated crops – birds, berries, bats, cabbage tree and tree fern pith, fern root, fungi, honey, grubs and insects.
At strategic points in the stockade of a pā, tall towers (taumaihi ) were built to give sentries a clear view of approaching groups of people. They also doubled as a platform to hurl stones and spears at any enemy below.
The typical pā in pre-European times was built on a high prominence, with good sight lines to see anyone who approached. It needed flat, fertile soils nearby to grow food for the community, and bush close by as well to provide wood for firewood and for construction. Ideally, the pā would also have a good water supply within the outer perimeter of the pā.
Watch towers served the double purpose of early warning of people approaching, and served as defence as well, with a plentiful supply of rocks kept there to throw down on attackers, and watchers carried spears to hurl at the invaders from on high.
Since ground water follows, to some extent, the contours of the land above it, the water table under a pa was often able to be reached by a relatively shallow well. This was a very important addition to a pā, and was essential in pre-European times, when the common method of attack was a many months long seige, to starve the inhabitants out of their redoubt.
Structural Changes to the Pā during the time of the Māori Musket Wars, and the time of the Māori – Pākehā Wars
The trench as shown here was formed in a zig zag pattern to prevent the fire of attackers from travelling the length of the trench. In addition, the outer wall was doubled to help prevent accurate or effective fire from outside.
Clear lines of fire were, however, put in place from within the pā to the outside, and the trench wall was high enough to protect the defenders from enemy fire.
Inside a fort at the time of the Musket Wars. By this time barrels for storage were a normal part of traditional Māori life, and were used not just for powder and shot for the muskets, but for general storage of foods, water and so on.
The pā had to have large supplies of food and water, since a common method of conquering a pā was to starve the inhabitants out. Later, the underground rooms were expanded in size and number to provide physical protection when the British began bombing the Māori pā.
The inner defences, the fall-back positions if the outer walls were breached, were also carefully prepared.
This quote is from the time of the Māori – Pākehā wars, Cowan (1922):
The outer wall, the pekerangi, or curtain, was formed of stout timbers, most of them whole trees, sunk deeply in the ground at short intervals, with saplings and split timbers closely set between the larger posts, all bound firmly together with cross-rails and torotoro, or bush-vines.
The smaller timbers did not quite reach the ground; it was through the spaces left that the defenders fired from their shelter in the trench behind the second palisade. The outer defence was completed by the masking of the timber wall with green flax, as at Puketutu.
The stockading was 10 to 15 feet in height; it was covered from a foot above the ground to the height of 8 or 10 feet with a thick mantlet of green flax-leaves tightly bound to the palisades. This padding of harakeke not only afforded considerable protection by deadening the impact of bullets, but masked the real strength of the stockade.
The second line of stockade, the kiri-tangata (‘the warrior’s skin’), was stronger than even the well-constructed pekerangi; every timber was set in the ground to a depth of about 5 feet, and rose above ground to a height corresponding with that of the outer line. Many of the palisades so planted, set close together, were whole puriri trees a foot or 15 inches in diameter—some were even larger—and some when cut and hauled from the forest must have been quite 20 feet in length.
This line of stockade was loopholed; the apertures for the Maori musketry fire were formed by taking a V scarf with the axe out of the two contiguous timbers. These loopholes were on the ground-level; and the Maori musketeer, pointing his gun through the aperture, was thus able to deliver his fire under the foot of the pekerangi without in the least exposing himself. The distance between the two fences was 3 feet. The trench in which the musketeer squatted was 5 to 6 feet deep and 4 or 5 feet wide, with an earth banquette on which the defenders stood to fire, and traverses at intervals of about 2 yards, with a narrow communicating-trench between each, admitting of only one man passing at a time. The venerable Rihara Kou, of Kaikohe, describing it, said: ‘We could travel right round the pa in the trench, winding in and out’ (‘haere kopikopiko ana’).