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: Observer 27/3/1897: 12.

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: New Zealand Tablet 28/2/1901: 29

A sketch of boys playing a game of marbles. Image:

A sketch of boys playing a game of marbles. Image: New Zealand Herald  27/10/1945: 4.

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 Herald 15/3/1886: 2). While many advertisements and anecdotes found in newspapers of the time suggest that most games were played by boys (New Zealand Tablet 28/2/1901: 29, Star 21/4/1876: 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: Otago Witness 28/1/1878: 2.

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


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

New Zealand Tablet [online] Available at

Observer [online] Available at

Otago Witness. [online] Available at

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

Star [online] Available at

Taranaki Herald [online] Available at

3 thoughts on “Archaeology: where losing your marbles is sometimes a good thing

  1. What a lovely wee article. You can’t help thinking about what happened to those children who once played with those marbles and it bought back my own memories.

    One of my grandsons turned 3 last February – a ‘quake baby’ and last year I bought him a tin of marbles in preparation for his ohhhh say, 6th birthday. Marbles are a fantastic way for children to learn to socialise let alone fine motor skills and mathematics! Let’s hope he share’s with his little brother!

    As a child, my brother had a big cardboard Aulsebrook’s/Griffins biscuit box – the type that packets of biscuits were packed in at the factory to send to the shops. It was chock full of all sorts of marbles. His pride and joys especially were the ‘Bombers’ but the heavy ball bearings he counted as marbles he used to show off also. He’d even let me play with his marbles when he was in a good mood and wasn’t being the typical overbearing brother :o) and in the early 1970’s my parents had finely striped carpet in the lounge which made it lots of fun to line them up and try to remain straight whilst aiming down the other end…ahhhh memories! That house has now been demolished – red zoned, but the memories remain with us for the time being.

    Best wishes

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