In the course of my research of VikingAge woodcraft, I somewhat unexpectedly turned up information about a most delightful archaeological find: an entire hoard of children’s toys, found at Market Harborough parish church, England[i]. A charming stash of the everyday playthings of sixteenth or seventeenth century children, the hoard throws a rare spotlight on the material culture of childrenin the archaeological record.
The hoard was revealed when construction workers unblocked an old disused stairwell at the church and discovered that the space had been stashed with over 200 toys. Staff at Harborough Museum dated the collection to the late Tudor and early Stuart era (1570-1630). The hoard was comprised of street toys, specifically 117 objects known as tipcats, 89 spinning tops, thirteen sap whistles, six knucklebones, seven balls, five whip handles, two possible teetotums (a kind of spinning top) and eight wooden cylinder objects that were also thought to be toys. The finds were made mainly from wood – willow, ash, hazel, alder and fruitwoods, cut straight from the hedgerows or out of a carpenter’s workshop – with some bone, clay, leather and fabric also used.
The toys were described as ‘street toys’ and a quick review of the collection certainly brings to mind a hustle and bustle of rowdy out-of-doors play. The broadly contemporary painting The fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Elder gives a vivid impression of toys like these being used in a busy Dutch street (see previous image). Additionally, the same artist has left us a fascinatingly insightful inventory of as many as eighty types of games played by contemporary children in Holland his painting Children’s Toys. Interestingly, the church where the toys were found is located right next to a Grammar School which was in existence at the time the toys would have been used. This gives an idea as to the source of toy-owners; but how did the toys come to be blocked up in a disused stairwell?
THE ROOD SCREEN
The blocked stairwell where the toys were found had formerly given access to the Rood Screen. In medieval churches, the rood screen divided the nave and the chancel and had a walkway at its top, accessed by stairs on either side (see image below). At Market Harborough church, this was demolished in 1752. It was suggested that the toys made their way into the stairwell having been swept there from the rood screen walkway, onto which they had been tossed, presumably at the hands of irate adults.
The balls were of a consistent size, of about 8cm in diameter, made mainly of a fibrous material held together with clay and covered with red cloth or leather. Two were naturally-shaped flint nodules, and two were made of clay.
THE SPINNING TOPS
The tops were found in a variety of shapes and sizes, in two basic types: the whipping top and the peg top. The peg top is thrown, and can have a cord wrapped around it to provide extra spin when it leaves the hand. The “peg” is an inset, which can be made of metal, to reduce friction at the point of contact with the ground. A whipping top is kept in motion by use of a whip and five whipping handles were found as part of the hoard. Most of the tops were hand-carved, but some had been turned on a lathe. Interestingly, the tops shown in the image are very reminiscent of those found at Viking Dublin.
Bones from the ankles of hoofed animals such as sheep, were used as playthings in the popular game Knucklebones. Six in total found at Harborough (four small and two large). The game was played usually with five knucklebones, which are thrown up and caught in various ways. Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting, Children’s Games represents the game in action.
Numbering 117 in total in the hoard, tipcats were clearly popular. They relate to a game played using two sticks, one large and one small: the smaller is the “cat,” often pointed at one or both ends, is hit into the air using the larger, before being hit a second time with the larger stick to drive it forward. All of the tipcat sticks found at Harborough are “cats”.
Thirteen sap whistles were found. These were made from short lengths of young wood, alder or fruitwoods, which had the pithy core removed to form a tube, which was then blocked at one end. The whistle was then played by blowing across the top of the open end. Some tube wood items found were open at both ends, and it was suggested that these could have been used as pea shooters.
CHILDREN IN ARCHAEOLOGY
Children in archaeology are often the invisible population, considered as variables in an adults world. Through their material culture – in the form of the artefacts found in this hoard – children can be understood in archaeological research as children in the present, “not just as individuals who will one day be adults”[ii] While the lives of children in late medieval times are often represented as brutal, and filled with experiences that would horrify the modern observer[iii], the discovery of this hoard reveals a more light-hearted and fun-filled character to childhood in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
[ii] Baxter, J. E., 2005, The Archaeology of Childhood; Children, Gender and Material Culture, AltaMira Press.