Chatham Island dendroglyphs

Sacred tree carvings are a window back in history.

Heritage value

Hundreds of years ago ancestors of the Moriori, the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands, carved images onto the trunks of living trees. A number of these carvings, or dendroglyphs, survive protected in a national historic reserve.

Traditional motifs carved onto living trees are globally very rare. Other examples exist in Australia, United States of America and Sweden.

The style and number of the dendroglyphs on the Chatham Islands are unique and are regarded as being internationally significant. Typically, most Moriori dendroglyphs depict a human form but there are also other patterns depicting fish and birds.

Dendroglyph in Chatham Island Forest. Photo: Ross Giblin.
Dendroglyph in Chatham Island Forest

The exact meaning of the carvings remains unknown, but they are still very much regarded as a sacred treasure by Moriori.


Surveys of the carvings have been undertaken since early last century. The first conservation step was in 1979 when landowner J.M. Barker gifted the land to the nation.

DOC manages the reserve in partnership with the Hokotehi Moriori Trust. Many of the carvings are disappearing as disease and wind erosion take their toll on the trees.

Recently DOC has led a groundbreaking project with the University of Otago and Chatham Island Moriori to scan the carved surfaces of the trees with a three-dimensional laser scanner to record the images for posterity. It is the first time this technology has been used to record heritage features in New Zealand.

Read more about 3D laser scanning of the Chatham Island dendroglyphs.

Getting there

Air Chathams flies to the Chatham Islands. Head north from Waitangi on the North Road, turn right at the signposted turnoff 6 km from Kaingaroa. The reserve is at the end of the road adjacent to the old Hapupu Airstrip.

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