Have you lost your marbles?? A total of 25 complete and fragmentary marbles have been recovered at Jamestown by archaeologists in contexts dating from the 17th century through modern day. The majority of the marbles in the Jamestown collection are made of glass, date to the late 19th and 20th century, and represent children who have visited the site. Colorful handmade glass marbles were first produced in the late 1840s by German glassmakers, and they later became the cheapest and most popular marble type in the United States.
Five marbles in the Jamestown collection are ceramic. The most common type of marble used in the 17th century were brown salt glazed stoneware marbles, and one of these was excavated from a mid-17th century feature at Jamestown (main image, above). This is the earliest datable marble in the Jamestown collection. It and the one other stoneware marble in the collection may have been produced in Germany, the Netherlands, or England before arriving in Virginia. By the late 18th century, earthenware marbles were produced on a small scale in America, indicating that the two earthenware marbles recovered from mixed contexts at Jamestown may have been made locally. And one final marble appears to have been made from local clay, perhaps a small clay ball formed in the hands of a gaming colonist.
Prior to the late 17th century, marbles found on Colonial American sites were almost exclusively ceramic, typically brown and gray stonewares. Although stone marbles have been in use for thousands of years, they were not manufactured commercially until the 1680’s. In the 18th century, stone marbles began to replace ceramic ones and by the early 19th century, more stone marbles are found on American sites than ceramic marbles. Only two marbles in the Jamestown collection are made of stone, and they are most likely from the 18th-19th century when these marbles were at their most popular. 17th century historical documents indicate that marbles were both a popular and controversial game. Beginning as early as the medieval period and continuing into the 1600’s, laws prohibited playing with marbles and other games both in Europe and the colonies. Similar laws were passed in New York in 1679 and in Pennsylvania in 1705. These laws may be the reason why marbles are found in much lower quantities in English 17th century colonial sites than they are in Dutch and French sites. Even if no prohibitions against marbles specifically existed in the earliest days of Jamestown, there was likely disapproval of these games. The Laws Divine, Morall, and Martiall, adopted in 1610-12 indicate that individuals were not to “use any unlawfull and prohibited games…” However, archaeological evidence in the Jamestown collection suggests that these prohibitions did not stop at least one marble from appearing in Virginia by the mid-17th century.