This picture shows three urunga in the CILAMS museum collection.
Urunga are headrests but in a number of museums in the world they are often mistakenly referred to as seats (no’o’anga or atamira). In fact these three exhibits were once labelled as ‘thrones’.However two carvers on Rarotonga, Henry Tavioni and Gavin Aratangi have both recently confirmed that these items are urunga.Seats for chiefs were larger and taller although similarly carved. In the past, commoners sat on the ground or floor. Urunga are carved from a single piece of wood, usually tamanu (island mahogany). One of the three in our collection is from Atiu, one is from Mitiaro and the other is of uncertain provenance.They are between 44cm and 50cm long, 18cm to 24cm wide, and 7.5cm to 9.5cm high at the lowest point.
Before European beds and feather or kapok-stuffed pillows were introduced, Maori people slept on mats on the floor so it makes sense that urunga, given their size and height, would have been used to support the head.
Anything higher than 9.5cm is probably a seat.
A typical headrest has 4 tear-drop shaped feet and the ends of the ‘seat’ are curved upwards.
Maori traditionally considered the head (upoko) a sacred part of the body, so it is unlikely anything used for resting the head on would be used for sitting on as well – in fact anything associated with the head is always treated with respect.For example, a hat, which is worn on the head, is never left on the floor where feet walk. Children are often spanked if they sit on pillows. Makave rouru (hair sections tied with ribbon) from a haircutting ceremony are stored away carefully for years.
The head is considered superior to other parts of the body. Upoko also means leader, ruler or head of a clan, group or tribe.
Makiuti Tongia said recently that an urunga was considered tapu and was often buried with the owner when he or she died.
When we were children, my younger brother stood and rocked on an urunga with his feet, much to our grandfather’s (Kairae Papa, born in Atiu, 1914 - died Mauke, 1991) disgust. My brother was scolded severely for putting his ‘dirty feet where one puts his head’. I also recall our grandfather telling us the item should be stored up high, not sitting on our living room floor.
Akekaro Kairae, a Maukean, remembers her grandfather, Tauraariki J Paparongo (1888-1965) always used a wooden urunga of the types pictured to support his head whenever he lay down on a mat on a concrete floor, which elderly people often did (and some still do) in an effort to ease their aching backs.Urunga were reputedly made in all the islands of the Cooks group except Mangaia. - Jean Tekura Mason, curator