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Moa egg expert intrigued by Transylvanian find

Mar 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Student Features

mao-eggWHEN travelling around Transylvania, the last thing a Wellingtonian would expect to find is lost taonga from Aotearoa.

But that’s exactly what happened to Miriama Ketu and her partner when they stumbled across a moa egg (pictured right) while visiting a Romanian museum.

Located in Cluj-Napoca, roughly 320km northwest of the capital Bucharest, the museum holds a number of curios from around the world.

Miss Ketu, a psychology masters student and professional actor, was astounded by the find, as she had never seen a moa egg in New Zealand, let alone on the other side of the world.

It happened when she was travelling through Romania showcasing a piece of New Zealand theatre with three others. On a day off, she and her partner consulted the Lonely Planet Guide to see what there was to do. It led them to a Zoological Museum.

The museum is a 1950s science laboratory attached to the city’s university that has been preserved in its original condition and is now open to the public.

“It was full of strange stuffed creatures and foetuses in jars. We were very surprised to find that it also contained a moa egg from New Zealand. Given that I had never even seen one in New Zealand and didn’t think any still existed, I was intrigued and took photos.”

arapataArapata Hakiwai (pictured), a taonga expert from Te Papa Museum, says moa eggs are treasured because they are quite rare.

In 2005, an exhibition was held by the Rangitäne tribe at Millennium gallery in Blenheim. Included in this exhibition was a moa egg that had great value and significance to the iwi of Rangitäne.
 
Mr Hakiwai, who has been involved with the return of toanga from overseas museums, is unsure how the Romanian egg would have ended up there as the “trajectories of taonga have many paths.

“Taonga were collected, bought, traded and stolen since the time of first contact, and many of the taonga we have at Te Papa are a result of acquiring them from a number of collectors.”

In the 1800s and early 1900s, there was great activity in the field of science and Mr Hakiwai suspects this moa egg may have been collected as part of this research fervour.

More than 150 overseas museums hold Maori taonga and he says that sadly most Maori will never be able to see them, experience them, and reconnect with them.

“The reconnection process is vitally important as these taonga represent identity markers and important treasures that speak about our history and identity.”

Getting the moa egg returned to New Zealand would be “very tricky”, as most museums would “shut their doors”.
 
The discovery comes as a surprise to Dr Brian Gill, a moa egg expert from Auckland Museum’s ornithology department.

He has compiled a list of 36 moa eggs held at museums around the world, but did not know of the 37th until he was contacted for the purposes of this article. “I’m not aware of a moa egg in Romania and I would be very interested to have more details.”

However, he was sceptical about the egg’s authenticity:  “Although it may be stated to be a moa egg it is quite possible, even likely, that it is not.  It could be a misidentified elephant bird egg from Madagascar or it could be a plaster cast rather than a real egg.”

miriamaMiss Ketu (pictured right), who admits her knowledge of the subject is not extensive, remains adamant that what she saw is the real thing: “It looked authentic, with nicks in the shell and a faded brown colour. I have no idea how it would have arrived in Romania though.”

Dr Gill has catalogued moa eggs in two museums in London and one in the US. Another eight museums in New Zealand hold moa eggs.

The eggs in London went there in the 1800s before New Zealand had museums of its own.  The American egg possibly arrived there by sale through a dealer in the 1930s, after the finder took it out of New Zealand.

The Romanian egg appears in good condition, compared with many catalogued by Dr Gill, as it is almost completely intact.

Whole moa eggs are rare and always of scientific interest because speculation then begins on which species of moa they belonged to.

This year a new DNA technique employed by a team at Massey University in Albany has been able to extract DNA from moa eggshells. The DNA can then be used to identify the species.

Dr Gill is curious about the egg in Cluj-Napoca and says it “warrants further investigation”.

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