Problems inherent in Toy Research


Bergen, Medieval

One of the frustrations of researching toys is that they get battered and broken and discarded so frequently, and the materials of which toys were made in the time period that we study tended to be used and/or to biodegrade easily. The broken bits are also easily mistaken for other things, or completely unidentifiable. Of all the toys that I’ve been looking for, small wooden things have been the most elusive, balls are problematical and even rag dolls are hard to come by.

Roman Era (Egypt) Reed ball

From my page on balls, “Rocks 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.”

I figured out as I was getting into this intensively, based on my previous research that toys haven’t changed much, it’s the materials that have, and that’s somewhat the case. So bear with me for a minute for an illustration of what I’m talking about.

68-dog-chewed-toy-425mk071511Think Barbie doll…. very recognizable as a doll, right? Certainly as a child’s toy…. Ok, now think Barbie doll that the dog got hold of, chewed to bits and left out in the yard. Figure it’s in a spot where it’s not seen and the lawn mower runs over it and eventually it’s raked up and dumped in July 2010 017the compost heap, to be turned over into the garden soil and then dug up a hundred years down the line, green with mold and crusted with dirt. Would it be saved? Would it be other than trash? Would it even be recognizable at all, especially if the bits are scattered across 30 or more feet of ground?

I actually had an experience of this as a child. There was a huge mound of dirt at my grandparents’ summer house. It had been piled over the old Model T, when it finally gave up and stopped working during WWII. The whole yard had been leveled at that time and all the topsoil piled on the garden and subsoil raked and seeded with grass except for that heap over the car that had been rolled into a low spot. So in the early 60’s it was a tall

Yes, just like this, although I couldn't vouch for the puppy. Image found on the Net.
Yes, just like this, although I couldn’t vouch for the puppy. Image found on the Net.

mountain for a small child! I spent hours digging and making mudpies to my heart’s content (and yes, after taking one bite myself, I fed them to my younger brother… how did he survive me?) Every so often I found bits of metal or china that had been in the yard dump before the yard was leveled. One day I dug up a couple of pieces of china, one round and lumpy, one long and hollow and one non-recognizable chunk. I played with them all day and for most of a week after that, then left them on the steps one night when it started to rain. The next morning, my Dedi saw them lying there, no longer dirty, and said, “What’s this?” He rolled them over and over and finally put them on the kitchen table. My grandmother fussed when she saw them there at lunchtime, but said, “Oh, that’s Helen’s old Frozen Charlotte that got broken and we threw it out when it wouldn’t hold glue.” The lumpy bits were the head, the long bit a piece of leg and the other chunk must have been body. Where the rest of it went, who knew?

Now china doesn’t rot. Wood does. So take that experience and magnify it. That’s what we’re dealing with…..

Assumptions – This can be a problem in researching toys. A soup recipe is a soup recipe, (or at least a description) when you’re working with culinary. Linen is linen and wool is wool when you’re working in costume, but toys get a little iffy. Marbles are labeled as “Game Pieces”. Solid pottery dolls are listed as “statuary” or “figurines”, “religious offerings”, and “votive statuary”, or even as “grave goods” and that can lead to a lot of things being set aside in places where a search for “toys” will leave them out. …and that doesn’t even touch the little leather scraps next to a pile of nameless fibers that used to be straw, that just gets tossed out as “garbage” in digs that are not careful.

You can have your own assumption sets that trip you up, as well. I used to assume that construction toys were one of those things that *had* to exist! I didn’t take into account the cultural shift that takes away the need for such things when you are picking stones and piling them into rock walls from the age of four, or stacking firewood, making wattle and daub walls, or helping to hold timbers as your home gets built. Be prepared to look carefully at your own culture before you assume things about another.

So, there’s a funny one from back in the 1800’s…. I don’t know how apocryphal, but it’s still a good example. A bunch of men were on an archaeological expedition in Egypt and spent a good long while unwrapping mummies and cataloging the things that fell out of the wrappings. These were all carefully labelled and laid out in a tent (and the mummies and wrappings burned for fuel, believe it or not….) One of the “good luck charms” came out of the hand of a rather small mummy, and had been in a small pouch, that shredded as they pulled it loose. The pouch had contained a pair of small, round, short sticks, a longer flattish one and some small round pieces on stone with remnants of bright paint on them.

So, at one point one of the scientists had a visit from his wife and kids out at the site. The kids got bored and vanished after awhile and the frantic search turned them up in the artifact tent…. playing “Marble Arch” with a set of things that had been labeled a “good luck charm”.

So… the moral of the story is to check assumptions at the door, or you’re going to come a cropper over one….

Still, there are some finds. You never know where something will turn up, like the teddy bear that was packed in a teapot, that I just found a couple of weeks ago. It hadn’t been played with since the kiddo left home and we moved after that in 1999!

…and this….

Ancient Kid’s Toys Hiding in the Archaeological Record –

Page created and published 7/22/15 (C)M. Bartlett
Last update 2/10/18


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