Pakohe or Argillite


The Whakatū region has a wonderful taonga, envied by iwi throughout Aotearoa.  The hills from Rangitoto (D'Urville Island), along the Richmond Range to the upper reaches of the Maitai, Wairoa and Motueka Rivers, contain lenses of pakohe (argillite).  This metamorphosed indurated mudstone is ideal for making tools and weapons for local use and for trade much further afield.  Fourteen major pakohe quarries have been identified on Rangitoto alone.

Pakohe mineral belt map

The Nelson Mineral Belt and site of the Rushpool Argillite Quarry, Maitai Valley, Nelson. Image supplied by author

Earliest communities, dating to the Archaic Māori period, recognised pakohe’s superior qualities of hardness, strength, and ability to hold a sharpened edge, ideal for making tools (especially adzes) and weapons.  Like obsidian (volcanic glass) pakohe has another property – conchoidal fracture;  napping with a hammerstone produces razor-sharp flakes, ideal for filleting fish, preparing roots and vegetables, woodcarving, flax work and net-making.

Māori quarried pakohe from lenses in the mineral belt, or from boulders that had survived millennia of pounding in mountain streams.  Quarry sites typically include extensive areas of argillite pieces won from outcrops, but rejected as unsuitable for further work.  

Pakohe Rushpool Quarry site

Photograph of a small area of the Rushpool Quarry, Maitai Valley, Nelson. Image supplied by author

The Rush Pool quarry in the upper Maitai Valley is probably the nearest quarry site to Nelson City.  In the early 20th century, H. D. Skinner described the site, citing Elsdon Best’s record of traditional methods of extracting raw materials:

“A very good (Maori) authority tells me that a fierce fire was kept burning on the face of the rock until it became red with heat.  Water was then thrown on it.  This caused the surface to crack and split up into small, or comparatively small, pieces;  but the rock underlying the shattered surface became not shattered, but merely cracked in fairly large pieces.  The shattered surface was loosened and thrown away, then the underlying part was split open (koara) and suitable pieces selected (uncracked pieces) to toki, etc.  Surface rock was always deemed inferior, and was not used.  Interior stone was much better for tools.  The best stone of all was obtained from below the surface of the water.” 

Skinner added that it was clear that “… fire is of no avail unless water is applied”, and observed that the pool in the quarry area appeared to be man-made, although not everyone agrees.

Pakohe Rushpool ridge

Rushpool Ridge; quarry site just below centre of photograph. Image supplied by author

Another method involved the use of hammerstones to break up small-size boulders.  The hammerstones at the Rushpools are:

“… almost without exception, water-worn granite [granodiorite] pebbles brought from Mackay’s Bluff or from the Boulder Bank.  They range in weight from a few ounces to half a hundredweight [c.25kg] … The transport of the larger ones for many miles over streams, through bush, and across a high saddle must have presented great difficulties … “

Pakohe Rushpool quarry rejected materials

Rushpool Quarry: photographs of rejected materials. Image supplied by author 

Māori often took pakohe/argillite boulders from the quarry to be worked closer to home:  there are stone-working sites throughout Te Tau Ihu where partly-worked adzes, other artefacts, and large volumes of argillite flakes are found. 

The high value of argillite as a trade item is confirmed by the vast numbers of tools, weapons, unworked or partly-worked stone, and cast-off flakes of stone from Whakatū found in archaeological sites throughout New Zealand.  Its value plummeted with the introduction of metal tools and weapons. 


Pakohe adze. Image supplied by author

Working Argillite

The very properties of hardness and durability which make pakohe such a valuable material also demanded high levels of skill by stone-workers, and considerable time to produce a finished, sharpened, polished item, ready for use.  A contemporary stone carver, admired for his beautiful creations in argillite using modern machine tools, reports that his attempts to replicate the methods of his ancestors ended in failure.  Most items he worked on either broke, or the napping process removed flakes unpredictably, ruining the desired shape.  And the time required was exorbitant, ruling out traditional technology as totally uneconomic.

Te Iwi Pakohe

Ngāti Kuia, who have lived in Te Tau Ihu since their ancestors arrived from Hawaiki c.1350AD, call themselves Te Iwi Pakohe,  a fitting name, given their centuries-long relationship with the valuable stone, although they may not have been the first to identify and exploit the taonga.


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Further sources - Pakohe or Argillite


  • Davis, Te A., O’Regan, T., and Whiting, C.(1990) He Korero Purakau Mo Nga Tamahanatanga a Nga Tupuna: Place Names of the Ancestors. [Wellington] : New Zealand Geographic Board, 1990.
  • Johnstone, M. (2011) Pakohe – A Rock that sustained early Māori Society in New Zealand.. In Ortiz, J. et al (eds.) History of Research in Mineral Resources. Cuadernos del Museo Geominero, 13. Madrid: Instituto Geológico y Minero de España
  • Mitchell, H & J (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough : Vol I: Te tangata me te whenua - the people and the land. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatū Incorporation, p. 23, 53-55.