Clay Balls

Project details

  • Date

     February 5, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Featured Finds

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Clay
  • Place of Origin – Virginia
  • Date – Early 17th Century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Collections
  • Category – Featured Finds

When small, hand-molded and low-fired clay balls started showing up in the James Fort excavations in 2003, Jamestown Rediscovery staff wondered if they were used by the colonists for entertainment. As today, ball games were popular in early 17th-century England, particularly skittles, tennis, cricket, handball, billiards, pall-mall (a croquet-type game), and bowls. Bowls, whereby a large ball is rolled on a lawn or down an alley in an attempt to end up close to a smaller target ball called a jack, was especially favored by all levels of the society. Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton and Virginia Company shareholder, is said to have played bowls twice a week “in the company of thirty or forty knights and gentlemen” (Emerson 1996, 209). In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale purportedly found colonists “bowling in the streets” of Jamestown instead of working at productive tasks. But whether this was the actual situation or just a metaphor for the men’s idleness or perverted sense of priorities is not known. Similarly, Sir Francis Drake’s confidence in his ability to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 is reflected in the oft-repeated anecdote that he was calmly bowling on Plymouth Hoe while the Spanish fleet advanced on England!

Ball games at the time of Jamestown’s settlement used different sizes and types of balls, which were usually stuffed leather or cloth, wood, or ivory. Though not as common, clay balls are also known, such as the two found in an English hoard of toys dating c. 1570-1630. It is not known how these three-inch-diameter balls were used and it is even possible that they had once served as the cores of balls that had been covered with another material.

At least 18 examples are represented in the seventy-four clay ball fragments that have been recovered from eight distinct contexts of James Fort. Two of the contexts were disturbed by later activities on the site, but the remaining six areas of the fort are believed to have been filled in 1610 with the detritus of everyday life. One of the balls is much smaller than the rest, measuring only 0.75” in diameter, and is considered to have been used in a game like marbles. The remaining balls are very similar to each other, ranging in size from one to two inches in diameter and most measuring on the larger end. The heaviest complete ball weighs 4 ounces and the lightest 2.3 ounces. The weight of the balls argued against them being used as ammunition for stonebows, which were popular crossbows for hunting birds and rabbits. These bows shot lead shot, pebbles, or small baked clay balls but any projectile weighing over ½ ounce would travel too slowly to be effective.

All the Jamestown balls have been smoothed on the exterior but some are not perfectly rounded, which would have made rolling them in a game very difficult. In addition, some of the balls are scorched from exposure to flame and some show signs of sooting. These aspects suggest that the clay balls may have been used in cooking.

Evidence for cook-stone cuisine has been documented on native sites beginning in the Late Archaic period throughout North America. This cooking method used stones heated in a fire for either roasting foods in subterranean pits or for warming soups or stews in tightly-woven baskets or clay pots. In areas where naturally occurring stone is scarce, such as the coastal Southeast, the natives evidently substituted baked clay balls. Poverty Point in Georgia, which was occupied c. 2000 B.C until 400 B.C., is a classic example of this practice. Scores of baked clay objects have been found on the site in association with pits containing ash and charcoal. Because many of the early sites containing clay cooking balls do not include pottery, it is believed that the use of clay balls for indirect cooking came before the production of pottery; but researchers are still debating this point.

“Cook-stone cuisine” has also been recorded in California and Mexico. While visiting Boston University recently, I was introduced to graduate student Stephanie Simms who had studied a deposit of fired clay balls recovered in 2009 from a c. A.D. 800-950 Mayan site in Mexico. Simms’ research included microanalysis of residues on some of the balls, which were hand-formed in similar sizes to the Jamestown examples. The analysis revealed starch grains from maize, squash, beans, and arrowroot suggesting that the balls had been used to heat or cook food. It is not known if the Jamestown clay balls were used in a similar way, but a future study looking for microbotanical residues may be informative.

If starch grains are found on the Jamestown balls, we still won’t have all the answers for these enigmatic objects that were not documented in the historic record. Were the baked clay balls made by Virginia Indians or by the English settlers? If the former, were the artifacts rare survivals from native occupation of Jamestown Island many years before the arrival of the English? After all, we find Archaic stone projectile points and tools mixed in with our colonial contexts. If made by natives in the Contact period, these objects may represent the first archaeological evidence to suggest continuation of an ancient culinary technique using clay “cook-stones.” Alternatively, the clay balls could have been formed by the colonists as an easy solution for keeping food warm for longer periods – much as we do today with the clay warming tiles that are placed in the bottom of bread baskets. This method would be especially useful to individuals who are venturing out from the fort during the course of a day but still wishing a warm meal during their travels.

It is interesting to note that a group of five of the Jamestown balls was found, along with charcoal and signs of burning, in the same layer of Pit 17, a 2’5” deep pit measuring 5’2” x 8’4” and with straight side walls and flat bottom. Is it possible that Pit 17 may have served briefly as an earthen cooking pit in which heated clay balls were used to roast meats? Similar pits using cook-stones, known as fulachta fiadh, are recorded in Ireland. Although most of these Irish features have been shown by radiocarbon dating to have been in use in the Middle to Late Bronze Age, there is evidence there was continued use of the fulachta fiadh into the 17th century. Many of the Jamestown colonists had served as soldiers in the Irish campaigns before coming to Virginia and may have become familiar with the cook-stone culinary method.

For the moment, Jamestown’s clay balls must remain a mystery. But with further archaeological, scientific, and documentary research, we may reach a clearer understanding of who may have made them and why.

Bly Straube
Former Senior Archaeological Curator
Jamestown Rediscovery, November 2013

Further reading

Bunn, Jennings W. 1974. “Clay Balls: Ceremonial or Utilitarian?” Florida Anthropologist 27:1, 47-48.

Dennehy, Emer. 2008. “Hot Property: the Morphology and Archaeology of the Irish Fulachta Fiadh,” Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society 2:8, 5-27.

Emerson, Kathy Lynn. 1996. Everyday Life in Renaissance England from 1485-1649. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books.

Forgeng, Jeffrey. 2007. Daily Life in Stuart England. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Hunter, Donald G. 1975. “Functional Analyses of Poverty Point Clay Objects,” Florida Anthropologist 28:1, 57-71.

Sassaman, Kenneth E. 1993. Early Pottery in the South-East: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Simms, Stephanie R., Francesco Berna, & George J. Bey III. 2013. “A prehispanic Maya pit oven? Microanalysis of fired clay balls from the Puuc region, Yucantán, Mexico.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 1144-1157.

South, Stanley. 1970. “Baked Clay Objects from the Site of the 1670 Settlement at Charles Towne, South Carolina,” Notebook 2:1, 3-17.

Stone, Lilly C. 1979. English Sports and Recreations. Folger Guides to the Age of Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library.