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Do you think that today’s mad-dash grab for the hottest toys is just a phenomenon of modern times? Not necessarily. In the past as in the present, where we find children, we find toys, as shown by the fascinating examples of ancient toys that still charm our kids today. It may surprise you to know that the toy you played with when you were young is likely similar to an ancient toy discovered at an old dig site. (No, that is not a comment on your age!)
The construction of toys might date back to at least the Pleistocene era, with some Chinese archaeologists suggesting hominids were making stone toys from as early as two million years ago. A study published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology revealed evidence that Neanderthal children played with toy axes and were taught how to make tools. But because it’s not always obvious what was or wasn’t used as a toy versus a tool, we can’t be completely certain about what kids played with way back then . . . But we do know that kids in all historical periods played games and played with toys.
Depending on the situation, ancient toys ranged from extravagant, intricate, and expensive royal gifts crafted by masters, to the humblest playthings fondly made by a relative with everyday materials. Our modern life may seem increasingly complicated, but a child’s enjoyment of a toy is the simplest thing to understand. And ancient toys continue to captivate our kids and are probably way “better” than anything they might find on your smartphone! Here is a list of the most popular ancient toys from across the globe. Enjoy!
Rattles: Ancient Toy For Distraction And Getting Attention
Sharkunok Russian baby rattles made from woven birch bark with seeds inside. A natural eco-friendly ancient toy. ( Konstantin Aksenov / Adobe Stock)
Rattles are the go-to helper to occupy tiny hands and minds. Ancient parents kept babies and toddlers busy with rattles in the same way we do now. Rattles could be fashioned from clay, wood, bronze, dried seed pods or flower heads, and they came in a variety of shapes such as spheres or boxes, and animal rattles were especially popular, including pigs, dogs, owls, and others.
Numerous rattles have been found at ancient archaeological sites. In antiquity, children were typically buried with their toys, with the intention that they would continue to be children and play in the afterlife.
Pull Toys: From Wagons To Rolling Animal Companions
A baked clay pull toy from the ancient city of Khafajah in Iraq, dated to 2900-2330 BC. (Daderot / CC0)
Wheeled toys, which are frequently animals, that you pull along haven’t changed over the eons. What’s to reengineer? Little hands are made for gripping and pulling the string. Little eyes see and learn about the animal at the end of the tether. The child goes and the animal or vehicle “friend” follows along, as they mimic society around them, learning about life. These toys follow a similar pattern throughout most cultures and historical periods. Ancient clay pull toys have been found dating back to around 2500 BC at Harappa in Pakistan. Later, brass and bronze elephants and horses were common playthings among Indian children from wealthy families. Mexican archaeological sites have recovered many small-wheeled animal artifacts from 1500 BC.
Spinning Tops: New Kid Tech Toy That Requires Skills
Kids from way back playing on the sidewalk with spinning tops as they still do today in various places. ( Mannaggia / Adobe Stock)
A spinning top is a simple toy, but don’t let its modest construction fool you. Spinning tops are one of the oldest recognizable toys found at archaeological sites, having originated independently in cultures all over the world. In Iraq, a 6,000-year-old clay top was unearthed, and even famous pharaoh Tutankhamun of Egypt was entombed with a wooden spinning top dating to 1300 BC.
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Spinning tops were made of metal, wood, fruits, seeds, or nuts, and have been found among ancient indigenous tribes across the globe. Some were set in motion with a string or rope coiled around it, so when the string was pulled quickly, it would unwind and spin in place as if alive! And these ancient toys were also used by kids and adults alike to gamble and “predict” the future.
Dolls: Child Companions Since The Dawn Of Time!
An ancient Greek clay doll with moving body parts that is already quite sophisticated compared to the earliest dolls. This one isn’t wearing any clothes but likely when it was last played with it was dressed. ( Getty Villa / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Not many artifacts are as recognizable to humanity as a child’s doll. These little simulacrums have made their way (or have been carried under the arm of a child) throughout human history and are considered one of the oldest children’s toys in existence. And they weren’t just playthings. They were also used in magical and religious rituals around the world. The earliest documented dolls date back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They were homemade, rudimentary playthings or elaborate art pieces made of almost anything including clay, stone, wood, bone, ivory, leather, plants, or wax. Dolls with movable limbs and removable clothing (wearing the cutting-edge fashion of the times) date back to 200 BC. In Greece and Rome, it was customary for boys to dedicate their toy dolls to the gods when they reached puberty, and for girls to dedicate their toy dolls to goddesses when they married.
Marbles and Jacks: Competitive Ancient Toys For Fun & Profit
Metal knucklebones spilled from a bag along with the bouncing ball: this is a game of dexterity and in ancient Greece they actually used similarly shaped sheep ankle bones. (The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Did you play marbles like the ancients? In antiquity, they were made from clay, glass, faience, semi-precious stones, or even nuts! Stone marbles have been found at excavations near Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan, one of the world’s earliest major cities, dating back to 2500 BC. Marbles have rolled up at Chaldean, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian dig sites, and from these cultures made their way to Europe in the Middle Ages.
Knucklebones (or jacks) is an ancient game frequently depicted in paintings and sculpture works. It was usually played with five or ten small objects but was played in many different ways. For example, in ancient Greece the tiny ankle bones of a sheep were thrown up and caught on the back of the hand or landed on a surface to be tallied up. Called astragaloi in Greek, this, too, was a game that was also applied to divination. Young women who played were playing with fate to find a good husband. Boys and men played jacks, for fun and money, in the same way “modern” children with a set of dice (in their hands or spilled from a tumbler).
Hoops: A Way For Kids To Compete And Show Off!
A hoop toy with a horse in the center from 1870 AD, which could be rolled around the house (if big enough) or along the sidewalk or through the park. (Wikipedia Loves Art participant “The_Grotto” / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Playground antics still involve hoops. But when it comes to ancient toys, hoops were mostly rolled on the ground, often using a “stick.” The name of the game is to keep the hoop upright, or to show off your hoop skills. And at some point this would have included twirling it around your middle with no hands, like kids are doing now with a Hula Hoop. Hula Hoop play and skills are found in many ancient and modern aboriginal cultures. It is ubiquitous throughout Africa, and the Americas. The symbolical nature of hoop toys played a big role across many cultures. The ancient Greeks called the hoop a trochus. Hoop rolling was practiced in the gymnasium, and the hoop was also used for tumbling and dance. It was a popular pastime, but not counted as a “real” sport. Romans made their hoops out of bronze, iron, or copper, and the hoop, in this instance, needed to stand up to the level of the player’s chest. A bronze hoop was one of the toys of the infant god Dionysus.
Noise Making Toys: Clappers, Rattle Drums, And Whistles
Ancient toy whistles made of reindeer bones from Finland that date back to roughly 15,000 years ago. (Don Hitchcock / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Even in the ancient world, children liked to make noise. It’s no surprise that their toys made sounds as well. But somehow in the hands of a child the smallest toys make the loudest noises. Some of these were just miniature versions of common musical instruments, like clappers, rattle drums, or whistles. Chinese children played with whistles, bamboo and reed pipes, and colorful rattles. Ancient Mesopotamian children would harden clay discs and tie them together with rope and then whirl them around above their heads, creating a loud buzzing sound. Similar toys are known as bullroarers in other parts of the world, and though they are now mainly associated with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, bullroarers originated in the Paleolithic period, dating back to 18,000 BC in the Ukraine!
Rubber Ducks And Animal Toys: Kids Companions Across Time!
An ancient Greek ceramic animal toy from the Bronze Age. (Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China / CC0)
Animals of all types were represented in the ancient toy lineup. In modern times, we may have played in the bath with a rubber ducky (an invention that was born in the late 19th century as a chew-toy, as the heavy vulcanized rubber it was made of was too heavy to float). But animal toys were often made of clay, wood, bone, teeth, horn, or anything commonly at hand. They sparked the imaginations of children, were close companions, and played an educational role by identifying various animals and their roles or uses in society at an early age.
Toy Boat: A Big Deal In Ancient Maritime Cultures
An ancient Egyptian miniature boat from 2000 BC that appears to be an ancient toy but was in fact a representation of crossing the waters to the other side. But toy boats were probably also playthings in Egypt, but maybe we’ll never know for sure. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0 ).
You might have had a little toy boat to sail the seas of your imagination as a child. So too did ancient children. The most well-preserved types of toy boat models available to archaeologists are Egyptian. These tiny boats were made from ivory, wood or clay. True “toy” boats are rare though. The Egyptian ship models found at ancient digs weren’t toys, but grave goods left in the tombs of prominent people as a magical representation of the boats used to ferry souls into the afterlife.
Children’s toy boats have been found at the sites of many maritime cultures. For example, a small, wooden, 1,000-year-old carved Viking ship was found on an ancient farmstead on the coast of central Norway. The boat toy found on an ancient farm showed that kids didn’t just work hard but were also encouraged to play as well.
Toy Soldiers: Ancient Toys That Celebrated Combat!
This Medieval bronze toy mounted knight, from the 13th-14th century, is one of the earliest extant toy soldiers that we know of. ( The Walters Art Museum )
This medieval European bronze mounted knight is one of the earliest extant toy soldiers. In his day, this toy soldier would have held a jousting lance, possibly made of wood, in his right hand, which has since been replaced with what looks like a chopstick. Many such toys were undoubtedly made in ancient times: they were easy to produce and didn’t require modelling precision to make them “effective.” However, few of the earliest toy soldiers survive today. Most were lost or broken through long use. The workmanship is crude, but for any little boy with his head full of dreams of becoming a knight, it was enough.
The first mass-produced tin soldiers were made in Germany as a tribute to Frederick the Great during the 18th century AD.
Top image: This Medieval bronze toy mounted knight, from the 13th-14th century, is one of the earliest extant toy soldiers that we know of. ( The Walters Art Museum )
By Liz Leafloor
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