Friday, June 17, 2011

Marvelous Marbles or, Dial "M" for Marbles

After sharing with you Cedar Cliff High School’s archaeology program for last week’s post, we’re picking up again with the alphabetic theme, and find ourselves at the half-way point through our journey, the letter “M”. And a consensus was quickly formed that “M” is for marbles.

Kids today would probably look at you as if you were from Mars if you asked them to play a game of marbles. Indeed, there is an inverse relationship between the rise of the video game and the fall of marbles as a child’s game of choice. Chances are, if you grew up with a Nintendo controller in your hand, you never had a favorite “shooter” marble in your pocket.

Nevertheless, marbles do show up with some frequency on archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric, and their presence speaks to not only the enduring popularity of this classic children’s past time game, but to the presence of children themselves, a social group that can easily escape archaeological analysis.

As an archaeological specimen, it is fair to say that the marble has largely been overlooked. “Few artifacts within the scope of historical archaeology have been so totally neglected as the marble. There is no valid justification for this neglect, for marbles have perhaps as much potential as chronologically significant artifacts as many other more-studied artifacts, and are much more durable than most” (Randal 1971).

Native American examples of marbles curated by the State Museum’s Section of Archaeology include those made from clay, such as the single clay ball from the Schultz Site, 36La7, seen above, and the stone marbles collected by John Witthoft from Qualla, North Carolina, seen below.

Another specimen, is this stone marble seen here, recovered from the Foley Farm site, 36Gr52.

Stretching the typology a bit, a relatively large stone ball, seen here, was recovered from the Wyoming Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania, although to be fair, it probably would not be considered a true marble due to its great size.

Marbles manufactured in historic times are represented at a number of sites, with an early example made of clay like this one seen here from the Metropolitan Detention Center site in Philadelphia, 36Ph91.

Later examples are made of glass in solid colors like these from Washington and Lancaster Counties, seen here.

Another example from York County displays a swirl of colbat blue and white opaque milk glass.

So when the mood strikes, and the kids are bored with their Playstation, pull out the bag of Grandpa’s marbles, that is if you haven't lost yours!


Early Marbles Randall, Mark E. in Historical Archaeology 1971 Vol. V, Armour, David A. editor. The Society for Historical Archaeology, Lansing MI

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

1 comment:

  1. As a child I found a perfectly round marble, like granite, but with a circle in the middle of it and a rind about that circle. 1970's, in West London UK. I have never ever seen anything that resembled it. In design, or form.

    Are these common to the UK?