France hands back Maori mummified head to New Zealand

Head of Rouen's Museum of Natural History Sebastien Minchin (left) and Herekiekie Herewini, head of restitution at the Te Papa Museum of Wellington (right) carry a Maori head in Rouen, France, 9 May 2011 New Zealand first began requesting the return of the relics back in the 1980s

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The mummified, tattooed head of an ancient Maori warrior is being returned to New Zealand after spending decades in a French museum.

Monday's handover of the "toi moko" follows years of campaigning by New Zealand officials and Maori elders.

It has been held at the Museum of Rouen in northern France since 1875.

More than 300 such heads have been handed back from several countries since New Zealand began requesting their return.

French museum officials say they have no idea how the "toi moko" - which is intricately tattooed and has one damaged eye socket - came to be in their possession.

Until 1996, it had been on public display alongside the museum's prehistoric collection, said museum director Sebastien Minchin.

"As was done at the time, they compared the 'savage' from the other side of the world with our local cavemen," he told the Associated Press news agency.

It is thought to be one of some 15 similar relics in French possession and one of about 500 around the world.

French senator Catherine Morin-Desailly and Michelle Hippolite from the National Museum of New Zealand on returning the mummified head - courtesy S.Varea/AFT/3DArts

'Killed to order'

At the town hall in Rouen, a traditional ceremony took place, where Maori elders performed chants, prayers and other rituals to honour the dead man.

The Maori elders then rubbed noses with Mayor Valerie Fourneyron, a traditional Maori greeting, before signing the restitution agreement.

"It's truly a solemn and symbolic day," New Zealand ambassador Rosemary Banks said.

The head is being handed over to representatives of Wellington's Te Papa museum, who are touring Europe collecting the relics.

Start Quote

It's truly a solemn and symbolic day”

End Quote Rosemary Banks New Zealand ambassador

New Zealand first began requesting the return of the relics in the 1980s, but France's laws on cultural artefacts meant it could not give up the Maori heads in its possession.

In 2007, Rouen's council voted to send theirs back, but were overruled by the Ministry of Culture, which feared it could set a precedent for countries to reclaim their historical artefacts.

New Zealand's Dominion Post newspaper reported that the delegation would be bringing home nine heads in total.

"The French government have provided Te Papa, on behalf of Maori, the ability to bring these ancestors home," Maori leader Michelle Hippolite told the paper.

"This momentous occasion is filled with joy but is also a time for reflection on the journeys of these tupuna [ancestors]."

The Maori traditionally kept tribal heads as war trophies, but they later became much sought after by Western explorers.

They were in such demand that men were believed to have been killed specifically for their heads and slaves were said to have been tattooed and then killed.

Once back in New Zealand, DNA tests will be carried out on the remains where necessary to determine the correct ancestral lands for a proper burial.

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