Archaeology: where losing your marbles is sometimes a good thing

Imagine, if you will, that you were born in 1870. Your parents are colonists who journeyed to Christchurch to build a new life for themselves and their family. They’re not rich, but you live comfortably enough in this new country. As an infant, you survive the many dangers of your time and, eventually, you grow old enough to play with other children of your age. You participate in a variety of children's games, from ‘kiss-in-the-ring’ to rounders or ‘jolly miller’, but the ones you love best, your absolute favourites, are those played with marbles. You have your own collection, mostly made up of ‘commies’ (cheap clay marbles), but with a few treasured German glass marbles. You even end up with a couple of glass ones stolen from some Codd soda bottles that you found outside, but you lose them when you play for keeps against the children from the next street over. And, maybe, over the years, you misplace a few marbles from your collection, accidentally rolling them under a building or dropping them between the floorboards. And there they’ll stay, long after you’ve grown to be an adult and left childhood games behind you, until a curious archaeologist finds them in the dirt a century and a half later.

An 1897 cartoon of grown men playing at rounders and kiss-in-the-ring. Image:
An 1897 cartoon of grown men playing at rounders and kiss-in-the-ring. Image:

Marbles are actually quite rare finds here in Christchurch, surprisingly for something so easily lost. We’ve talked before about how the lives of children, especially their lives at play, can be so difficult to see in the archaeological record, making those few marbles we do find as precious to us now as they were to their original owners. We’re beginning to recover quite a variety of different types here in the city as excavations continue, from small clay (earthenware) ‘commies’, to coloured glass marbles and larger earthenware and porcelain examples.

A selection of marbles found on an archaeological site in Christchurch. Image: L. Davies .
A selection of marbles found on an archaeological site in Christchurch. Image: L. Davies .

Commies were one of the cheapest and most readily available types of marble around during the 19th century and were made from unglazed earthenware. From the mid-18th century until 1859, when a mechanised shaping process was introduced, they would have been hand crafted, probably in Europe or America (Gartley & Carskadden 1998: 49-50).Other marbles were made from glazed clay, porcelain or agate (known sometimes as ‘aggies’). During the latter half of the 19th century, handmade glass marbles became increasingly common, as manufacture became easier, although they weren’t mass produced until the turn of the century (Schrock 2004: 124).

Many of these marbles, especially the glass and stone ones, were made in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One 1901 account in the New Zealand Herald describes in detail the process by which workers in Germany used the marble and agate debris from quarries to create stone marbles (New Zealand Herald 28/2/1901: 20). The East German region of Lauscha was also renowned for its production of glass marbles, thanks in part to glassmaker Elias Greiner’s creation of ‘marble scissors’ in 1846. First used to create glass eyes for dolls, these scissors meant the glassmaker could cut and shape the ends of a glass rod into marbles relatively easily (Baumann 2004).

A 1901 description of marble manufacture in Germany. Image:
A 1901 description of marble manufacture in Germany. Image:
A sketch of boys playing a game of marbles. Image:
A sketch of boys playing a game of marbles. Image:

These marbles would all have been used to play a variety of different games, most of which involved trying to hit an opponent’s marbles or knock them out of play (i.e. ringers or 'ring taw') or attempting to shoot marbles through obstacles or into holes. Most of these would have been played outside in the Victorian era, on the street or in the yard of a house or school (Taranaki Herald15/3/1886: 2). While many advertisements and anecdotes found in newspapers of the time suggest that most games were played by boys (New Zealand Tablet28/2/1901: 29, Star21/4/1876: 3), it seems that girls also participated. One newspaper from 1878 speaks specifically of an indoor marbles board designed for girls to use, which involved attempting to shoot marbles into certain circles or triangles by striking them with a mallet (Otago Witness 21/1/1878: 2).

An 1878 advertisement for an indoor marbles board, targeted at girls. Image:
An 1878 advertisement for an indoor marbles board, targeted at girls. Image:

Of course, games were not the only use found for marbles. They were also used as ammunition, as schoolyard currency and, apparently, in Wales, some people thought them good for eating…Now, they are as much collector’s items as they are toys, although people still play many of the games as a sport. The British and World Marbles Championship is still held in Tinsley Green, in West Sussex, England, every year, as it has been for centuries (New Zealand Herald 16/4/1938: 33).

To an archaeologist, though, marbles are information. They’re a glimpse of those who are so often unseen in the archaeological record, evidence of a part of life – play – that is obscured behind the more utilitarian day-to-day artefacts we usually find. They’re little pieces of a childhood that were misplaced, but never quite completely lost.

Jessie Garland

References

Baumann, P., 2004. Collecting Antique Marbles: identification and price guide. Krause Publications, Wisconsin.

Gartley, R. & Carskadden, J., 1998. Colonial Period and Early 19th Century Children's Toy Marbles. The Muskingham Valley Archaeological Survey, Ohio.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Tablet[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Observer[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Otago Witness.[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Schrock, J., 2004. The Gilded Age. Greenwood Publishing Group, Portsmouth.

Star[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Taranaki Herald[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz