beachball2 motif

Balls, or at least things to throw or roll, are one of the oldest toys. Extant ones are not easy to come by, since toys get loved to death. A lot of balls can be mis-identified, as well, since ones like the first set below (which are a recreation) come apart into bits of unidentified of leather, cord and filling.

Style One
Style One

Ball moon star motifRocks don’t look like much other than rocks after they’re been battered. Wood rots or gets burned for fuel in a cold winter. Wool can rot or mold or mildew and break down. Paper and reed disintegrate. Bladders pop and land in the midden. Ceramics break into unidentifiable bits. Gold and silver ones (and they did exist) often got melted down for the precious metal. So…. there aren’t that many still in existence.

A page on my experiments –

Instructions on making a simple one for yourself –

Roman Era marbles
Roman Era marbles

…and marbles….subset of balls…. no one knows where marbles started off, although there are lots of theories. There are extant ones from Pompeii and Egypt. Probably nuts and/or smoothed river rocks were the earliest, but a couple of millennia of clay, wood, stone and glass ones exist, but since they’re just tiny balls, they do get mis-labeled. There are lots of references to marbles and marble games in period. Clay were mass-produced first in 1884 and glass ones were automated in 1915. (Marbles are on this page: )

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041815 Balls table 1Materials


  • Wood
  • Ceramic
  • Stone
  • Nuts – Balls? Well, they get treated the same and used in the same games!
  • Glass – especially small marbles in late period

Filled – covers

  • Denim or other medium-heavy, tightly-woven fabric a good fake for “Indigo linen canvas”
  • leather scraps – lightweight, garment, split or 2-3oz is the best
Filling to experiment with
Filling to experiment with

Fillings – centers

  • Moss
  • Linen and hemp waste
  • Spoiled wool or wool combings
  • Horse or other hair
  • Pebbles
  • sand
  • feathers
  • grass or hay

Fillings – Modern

  • Lentils
  • dryer lint
  • thread clippings
  • fabric bits
  • larger fabric pieces
  • doll beans
  • cut up loofah or cellulose sponge


  • bladders – pig, goat, sheep, cow, fish
  • skin – Particularly fish, snake and eel
  • paper – No evidence in Europe other than as curiosities, post Silk Road opening up.
  • Dried flattened reeds, grass and straw – Other than from Egypt these are known only from literary mention.

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Extant Pieces

Balls do exist from the times of the Roman Empire and before. Especially in Egypt, the climate and the burial practices helped to preserve some.

If you think they look familiar, that’s proof that toys haven’t changed all that much!

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Medieval Manuscripts



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Nobles playing ball game – Interior Fresco, Mural, 1395, Bolzano (Castle Runkelstein, Great Hall) South Tyrol

fresco snip


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Harborough Hoard (late Renaissance) – Full article here:

Irritated adults and confiscated toys led to an awesome find! 7 balls, of which two were flint nodules, two were clay and the other three were covered with either red cloth or leather and filled with a mix of clay and hair!

balls found at Harborough Market church

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Breughel’s Children’s Games – There’s a wonderful bit on the history and significance of this painting along with a rundown of all the toys and activities contained in the picture here (although I think there are some inaccuracies!)

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Handball & Tennis – These didn’t spring full-blown, but most of the predecessors are only spoken about.

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Other Ball Games links

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More to come!

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Sources for further study and references

  1. My paper for the Alpine Scholar competition on balls – Word – Balls, PDF Balls
  4. Harborough Hoard
  5. Marbles –
  7. World’s Oldest Football –
  8. Felted Balls –

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In ministerio autem Somnium!
Page created and published 4/20/15
Last update 12/19/15


3 thoughts on “Balls”

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