These small, hand-molded, and low-fired clay balls are a mystery artifact! At least 18 have been found from Jamestown, the majority from Fort Period contexts (ca. 1607-1624). They are relatively uniform, smoothed on the exterior, measuring between 1”-2” in diameter, and weigh 2.3 – 4oz. Their heavy weight indicates that they were not used as ammunition, but there are still a few hypotheses among Jamestown archaeologists and curators for their use.
The first theory is that they were used for entertainment as part of a ball game. In 17th-century England, games such as skittles, tennis, cricket, handball, billiards, pall-mall (a croquet-type game), and bowls were popular and did not require specialized equipment. However, clay balls were not commonly used for ball games. Since they were made locally, perhaps they were covered with a material like leather for gaming purposes, thereby supplying the colonists with a diversion from their everyday struggles. According to Sir Thomas Dale, the residents of James Fort in 1611 were found “bowling in the streets” instead of working. Perhaps Dale saw the colonists play the game of bowls, in which the player rolls a large ball down a lawn or an alley, trying to get the rolled ball close to a smaller target, called a jack. One of the clay balls is only 0.75” in diameter, suggesting it could have been used in a game like marbles.
Not all of the clay balls found at Jamestown are perfectly round, calling into question their use in a ball game where the roll’s accuracy was paramount. Some of the balls show signs of sooting and are scorched from exposure to flame, leading to the next hypothesis: the clay balls were used in cooking.
Cook-stone cuisine has been documented on Native American sites since the beginning of the Late Archaic period. This ancient cooking method used heated stones for either pit roasting or warming soups or stews. In areas where stone is scarce, baked clay balls were substituted. If the balls were made by Indians who lived at Jamestown in the Archaic period, they would be rare survivors. If made by Indians who lived at James Fort, these objects would represent the first archaeological evidence of the continuation of an ancient culinary technique.
On the other hand, it is not unlikely that the colonists also knew to use clay balls for cooking. On Middle to Late Bronze Age archaeological sites in Ireland, pits using cook stones have been found. Evidence indicates that cooking pits continued into the 17th century; thus, perhaps a colonist who previously served in the Irish campaigns witnessed this cooking style and brought it to Jamestown. Five clay balls with signs of burning were found together with charcoal in Pit 17 at Jamestown, a deep pit that may have functioned as an earthen cooking pit. Alternatively, the clay balls may have been used to keep food warm for more extended periods, like the clay warming tiles used in bread baskets today. Microanalysis of the balls’ surfaces could reveal evidence for their use in cooking if starch grains are identified. However, that analysis would only clarify the clay balls’ use, but who made and used them would remain a mystery.
The final and most likely hypothesis is that the balls may have been portions of clay used in the tobacco pipe manufacturing process. Fired clay balls like these have been documented on pipe-making sites in both the New World and the Old. Tobacco pipe manufacture was one of the first English industries at Jamestown. A “tobacco-pipe-maker,” Robert Cotton arrived at Jamestown in early 1608 and until ca. 1610, made smoking pipes in a hybridized Indian-English style. Thousands of Cotton pipe fragments were recovered from plowzone and subsurface features during James Fort excavations. Saggers used for firing the pipes, copper alloy stamps for marking them, and by-products such as fired clay stem and bowl shavings, and pipe wasters were also found. The balls may also have been part of the process, as the clay measurements needed to make a pipe were rolled into balls for stacking. These few objects may have unintentionally rolled into a fire, creating the fired clay balls archaeologists recover in excavations today.
Further research will determine which of these hypotheses is correct.