Pakohe - Argillite


Known to Māori as pakohe, and to geologists as metamorphosed indurated mudstone, argillite is particularly associated with the Nelson-Marlborough region in New Zealand. It is found on Rangitoto (D'Urville Island), along the Whangamoa mineral belt, and in the upper reaches of the Maitai, Wairoa and Motueka Rivers.
Maitai Quarry - ArgilliteMurray, J P fl 1880s-1890s: Mahakapawa Camp. 1888, Alexander Turnbull Library, G-561
Click image to enlarge

Earliest Māori communities recognised its superior qualities of hardness, strength, and ability to hold a sharpened edge, ideal for making tools (especially adzes) and weapons. Another property – conchoidal fracture (like that of obsidian – volcanic glass) provided a source of razor-sharp flakes for filleting fish, preparing roots and vegetables, woodcarving, flax work and net-making.

Maitai Quarry - ArgilliteMaitai Quarry - Argillite [Bruce Campbell, 2007]
Click to enlarge

Māori obtained pakohe by quarrying it from lenses in the mountains or by finding boulders which had survived millennia of pounding in mountain streams. Quarries with extensive areas of discarded argillite pieces which have been won from outcrops, but are unworked or only partly worked, can still be seen.

Henry Skinner described the Rush Pool quarry in the eastern hills above Nelson City in the early twentieth century. He believed there were two main methods of quarrying, and quoted Elsdon Best to detail the first:

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.1

Skinner added that it was clear that “… fire is of no avail unless water is applied”,2 and observed that the pool in the quarry area appeared to be man-made.

The other method involved the use of hammerstones to break up small-size boulders, although they would be of little use with rock faces not already opened up by fire and water. He described the hammerstones at the quarry as:

… almost without exception, water-worn granite pebbles brought from Mackay’s Bluff or from the Boulder Bank. They range in weight from a few ounces to half a hundredweight … The transport of the larger ones for many miles over streams, through bush, and across a high saddle must have presented great difficulties …3

Māori often took argillite boulders overland or in waka, to be worked closer to home: many locations throughout Te Tau Ihu have stone-working sites where partly-worked adzes and numerous argillite flakes can be found.

The high value of argillite as a trade item can be seen in the presence of unworked stone, tools, flakes and/or weapons in archaeological sites through New Zealand.
Read more about the geology and ethnology of Pakohe: Mike Johnstone (2011) Pakohe – A Rock that sustained early Māori Society in New Zealand.
Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Best, E. In Skinner, H D (1913) Ancient Maori Stone Quarry. Transactions of the NZ Institute. Vol 46, 1913. ; Mitchell, H..& J. (2004) Te tau ihu o te waka, vol 1. , p.54 
  2. Skinner ; Mitchell, p.54
  3. Skinner, Mitchell, p.54

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  • I grew up at a bach in a bay in Mahau Sound, in the Marlborough the far end of our beach near a small hill, I found hundreds of pieces of argillite. I loved collecting them. I was also lucky enough to find a few Maori adzes and axe head carved from argellite. Sadly, these have since disappeared. I still have some shards saved from my last visit, as well as a large argellite rock. I am sure there are still more maori tools buried in the beach near the small hill.

    Posted by Leanne Melbye , 03/07/2022 11:08pm (2 years ago)

  • Wea the taonga come from n mean when the motueka or are they from nelson?
    Ed - The argillite discussed in the story comes from the quarry near Nelson, on the route up to the Dun Mountain, to the east of the city. It was also found in the Motueka Rivers, presumably from an outcrop in the hills above. If this does not answer you question, please contact us:

    Posted by Deirdre Tamihana, 29/05/2018 2:04am (6 years ago)

  • I found a small Maori adze in a small pool on Marahau beach just below the beginning of the Abel Tasman Park track.I lived in ChCh and the Museum asked me to donate it which I did.I was told that the Maori went to an Island off Nelson to a quarry for their stone but I haven't seen any reference to an island.I have a lot of river stones of all shapes,sizes and colours as landscaping in my garden and am always looking for something ! Some stone is black and broken up.Is this argillite ? I also found a worm casting,Titahia,200 million years old, in a rock at Lake
    Coleridge.I was told fossils were rare in the Main Divide.I am 82 soon and would have loved to have been an archaeologist but in my day you
    were a rarity if you went to University in the UK,women anyway.Thank you. Ann Holmes. PS We are living in Richmond Nelson now and go to
    Marahau Beach often but I can't get far along the beach now.At Xmas my feet got deep into wet sand and I fell over and people on the beach had to get me and my walking stick out! I will have another go towards the track soon so wish me luck !
    out !

    Posted by ann, 06/03/2017 4:17pm (7 years ago)

  • ki ora I am studying with north tech whangarei Maori art carving wood my subject is pakohe i would love a sample of pakohe for my carving project, to have the real taonga stone inbeded I my carving that would add more authentic realistic,element to my carving project, that would be awsome, I live in whangarei 4 William Jones drive otangarei northland tai-tokerau.

    Posted by Thomas Rauahi, 02/07/2016 4:47pm (8 years ago)

  • There are at least 16 quarries which Jim Eyles and I recorded on the Nelson Mineral Belt of this very hard rock. (Walls, J Y. (1974). Argillite quarries of the Nelson mineral belt. Newsletter (New Zealand Archaeological Association), 17, 1, pp.37-43 )
    The description of quarrying by use of fire and water at the Rushpool has long been discredited. Boulders of granodiorite from the Boulder Bank were taken to quarries as far away as D'Urville Island to break large pieces from the outcrops, and then flaked into adze shapes with smaller hammerstones.
    The quarries have vast quantities of waste flakes and many unsuccessful roughout adzes.
    Argillite drill points were used to drill holes in softer rocks such as greenstone, but no rock was able to drill argillite. Hence no weapons were made of argillite.
    The name pakohe used in the article is defined in Williams Maori Dictionary as a grey stone used for tools and weapons so probably refers to greywacke.
    A possible name for argillite is aropawa - a kind of stone found in rivers of the South Island used for making tools. The Maitai, Motueka, and Pelorus rivers have argillite boulders which were utilised for tool making.
    A similar ultramafic zone in Southland also contains argillite quarries.

    Posted by Jack Walls, ()

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Further sources - Pakohe - 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. 
Children's fiction books:
(the story of an expedition of a group of Maori who travelled from Deleware Bay to the Argilite quarry, told through the eyes of a child, Ihaka)


  • Keyes, I W. (1975,May). The D'Urville Island-Nelson metasomatised rocks and their significance in New Zealand prehistory. Historical Review, 23,1, p.1-17
  • Newport, J N W.(1976, August)  Nelson's first industry. Journal of the New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies, 1.6 p.36-37
  • Prickett, Nigel. (1989, Sep) Adzes of Nelson argillite from the far north of New Zealand: the Auckland Museum collection. Archaeology in New Zealand, 32,3, p.135-146. 
  • Walls, J Y. (1974). Argillite quarries of the Nelson mineral belt. Newsletter (New Zealand Archaeological Association), 17, 1, pp.37-43
  • Walls, J. Y. & Hurst, M G. (1979, June). Rocky Knob and Cat Knob argillite quarries in the Nelson. mineral belt. Newsletter (New Zealand Archaeological Association.) 22, 2,pp. 60-62, 63-64
  • Walls, J Y.(1979, Mar). Salvage at the glen - a late archaic site in Tasman Bay. Newsletter (New Zealand Archaeological Association, 22, 1, pp.6-19 


For argillite artifacts:

Archaeological Report:

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