Friday, April 9, 2010

Ceramic Disks: Children’s Play and Adult Gambling in Prehistoric Pennsylvania?

Left Side: 17th Century Tin-glazed Disks from Contact Period Susquehannok Sites in Lancaster & York Counties.

Center: Three larger discs are Shell Tempered Pottery from the Schultz Susquehannock Site in Lancaster County and the smallest disk is a Late Woodland Period Nepheline Syenite Tempered Pottery Disk from a Delaware Site in Pike County

Right Side: Early 19th Century Historic Brass Whizzer from Fort Hunter in Dauphin County

Small ceramic disks are found on Native American Woodland and Contact Period sites throughout Pennsylvania. These objects were manufactured by grinding broken pieces of fired Native or 17th Century Colonial pottery into circular shapes. In some cases one or two holes were drilled through their centers. It is possible that these artifacts were children’s toys and game pieces that were enjoyed by different Native groups throughout the Northeast.

Whizzers or Buzzers are a traditional toy of both Native and European American children. Prehistoric whizzers were made from pottery, wood or bone, while metal whizzers are more commonly found in colonial contexts. They consist of a central disc, the whizzer, which is perforated with two holes. A string of sinew, twine or yarn is threaded through these holes and tied off to make a ring. By twisting the string and then pulling the ends out, the whizzer spins one way, and then twists back the other. This makes a whirring or buzzing noise when done correctly, for which the toy is named.

Solid ceramic disks found in Pennsylvania are similar to game pieces associated with the bowl and dice game (Wa’lade hamma’gan) played by the Penobscot Indians of southern New England in the 1600s. It is also known as Hubbub after the “hub” “hub” chants of onlookers who wagered goods on each game’s outcome. In Hubbub, players’ would alternate turns, casting six small rocks, stone-fruit pits or pottery disks of different colored sides in a bowl. If five or six of the pieces land on the same color side during a turn, the player is awarded stick markers. Players accumulate markers of increasing value and attempt to win their opponents’ markers over the course of the game. While we cannot assume that this precise game was played by Pennsylvania Indians, games of chance are documented cross-culturally for many Native groups. Link here ( for a complete set of rules for the game of Hubbub and other examples of traditional Native American games.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .


  1. Have you an online map showing the Schultz Site?

  2. Thanks for the comment/question Musser. Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources and as such need to be protected. Detailed site locations are not available to the general public as a precaution against would be looters.

  3. This is terrific! I work for a CRM co- we just found in a 19th c cellar hole feature a [tin-enameled? very small but likely] gaming piece like the ones you picture- I would so appreciate any sources you may have for gaming pieces like this! Thanks for your help!

  4. Anonymous,
    Glad you like the post and that it was helpful in possibly identifying your artifact. We don't have any additional references for these artifacts, but do have examples from other sites. You describe your arifact as coming from a 19th century context and tin-glazed earthenware is dateable as a 17th century artifact. Your piece may be an heirloom artifact or an example of a later ceramic type.