Archaeology – it’s child’s play

In the Southern Cemeteries project we mostly study skeletal remains and archaeology relating to death and burial. Not always the cheeriest topic! It’s really important for us to remember that the people we’re looking at lived lives before they died. They experienced hardships certainly, but they also had fun times! So for the final blogs in our “Little Lives” series we’re looking at the lighter side of childhood and have drafted in the help of material culture expert Jessie Garland from the fabulousThe City Remains‘ blog to give us some insight into what she’s finding in Christchurch in terms of toys.

Toys and other items made for children are some of the most interesting things we can find in the archaeological record. They’re an intriguing glimpse into the world of children and their make-believe worlds, but they also tell us about how adults treat children, the social norms that are introduced to children through play, things like dolls even tell us about how a population sees beauty. There’s a lot to be learned from playthings and evidence for children’s activities…

Toy assemblages from Christchurch:

It’s an unusual thing, when you really think about it, for so many of the artefacts through which we see nineteenth century childhood to be objects of play. It was an important part of childhood, even then, but it was not the most important, or the most consuming. Yet, through a combination of loss, fragility and survival in the archaeological record, toys are one of the easiest ways we can see the lives of Victorian children through their material culture.

In Christchurch, children’s toys are best represented in the archaeological record by dolls (or, rather, pieces of dolls) and marbles. We sometimes also find miniature tea wares – tiny teacups, teapots and saucers, made from porcelain and earthenware in imitation of one of the staples of the nineteenth century household. These (absolutely adorable) objects were collected by adults, but are most often assumed to have been children’s toys. As toys, they’re an interesting aspect of gendered play, as they would have been intended for girls, to teach them how to host tea parties and learn their roles – usually as mothers, wives and hostesses – in the house through play (Fitts 1999).

Tea parties were a classic form of child’s play – as they are today. They rarely feature in the news unless they go wrong though (as in this tragic story from the Evening Post, 11th Feb 1924).

Unlike miniature tea wares, the remnants of dolls found in Christchurch are, arguably, not so adorable. Some might go as far as to say they’re downright terrifying (I love them, but I have learned the hard way that not everyone does…). We mostly find bits of dolls, rather than whole dolls – detached ceramic legs and arms, tiny porcelain hands and broken heads. This is because many of the dolls of the nineteenth century would have had a stuffed cloth body onto which the arms, legs and head were attached with thread. You can see the evidence of this, on those occasions that we find a whole leg, in the little groove around the calf, where the thread or string would have been placed, to attach the limb to the body. Those bodies either don’t survive, or the limbs and heads that we find are those that fell off the body – a snapped or fraying thread, perhaps – and were lost.

Many of the dolls we find, or, at least, the ceramic parts of those dolls, would have been made in Germany, where there was a strong toy and porcelain industry during the 1800s. Some may have also been made in England, but it can be difficult to tell. The heads – more specifically, the hairstyles – of some dolls can help to narrow down when they were made, although this is also difficult. Just as children’s play can imitate life, the hairstyles of porcelain dolls changed with fashions and trends, as did the hairstyles of the women and men those dolls imitated.

Bits of various dolls found in Jessie’s work. Not creepy at all….
Photo: Jessie Garland

Many of the marbles we find were also made in Germany, especially glass ones during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others, like “commies”, one of the cheapest types, made from unglazed earthenware, were produced across Europe and, probably, America during the early to mid-1800s.  There’s such a wide variety of marbles that it would be impossible to talk about them all in detail – from the commies, to “swirly” glass marbles with their twist of coloured glass in the middle, to glazed Bennington marbles, porcelain marbles and the marbles from broken Codd bottles. Codd bottles used a combination of carbonation and carefully placed indents to seal the top of a bottle with a marble that would then be pushed down and prevented from re-stoppering the bottle when you wished to drink. Anecdotally, there are plenty of stories of children deliberately breaking Codd bottles to get the marbles out, leading to a lot of bottles in the archaeological record that are broken at the shoulder. It’s not a pattern I’ve noticed in the Codd bottles we’ve found in Christchurch, but also not one I’ve looked at very closely.

A selection of marbles. Photo: Jessie Garland
Top, left to right: Commie, porcelain marble with stripe, heavily indented glass marble, large commie, porcelain marble. Middle, left to right: Codd marble, commie, commie, swirly glass marble. Bottom, left to right: Bennington marble, blue striped marble, possibly two codd marbles in different colours, blue glass marble (also possible codd).

Marbles were a multi-purpose toy, used in all kinds of games, and often played with communally in the streets by local children. I get the sense, from reading the newspapers, that marbles – or the game of marbles – was slightly more the province of boys than girls. Playing at marbles is certainly mentioned more in relation to boys and men (for the men, usually as an analogy for some kind of juvenile behaviour) than it is to girls and women. I did find an advertisement for an indoor marbles board that was targeted at girls, dated 1878, but I should note that the advertisement begins with “Girls do not often play at outside games of marbles…”

Marbles, dolls and tea parties were not the only games children played, of course, and there are other toys we’ve found in Christchurch, albeit in smaller quantities. Kiddibricks, which were a kind of Lego before there was Lego, were made at the Adams pottery factory in Christchurch and are found in sites across the city. We’ve found a few dominoes on sites now, although several were in hotel sites, where they were as likely to have been used by adults as children (they were associated with gambling). The material culture of children survives in other way as well, of course, in children’s plates and cups, in slate pencils and writing slates and in children’s shoes, but there’s something about toys that’s particularly evocative. Maybe it’s because they remind us of our own childhoods and the freedom of play. Then again, maybe it’s just because they’re so tiny.

Kiddibricks found on site in Christchurch
Photo: Jessie Garland

Do we find the same kinds of toys in Otago?

We don’t have any toys in our cemetery samples, colonial christian cultural practices generally mean that burials don’t include any personal items. However, our site director Peter has found toys elsewhere in his Otago colonial excavations, and his evidence for child’s play is pretty similar to what Jessie is seeing in Christchurch. In the St. Peter’s Vicarage in Queenstown, for example, Peter found a lot of evidence for the presence of children. Here, just as in Christchurch, miniature teasets, doll parts and marbles are the most obvious examples of child’s play.

More dismembered doll parts and lost marbles, this time from St. Peter’s Vicarage (Queenstown). Photos: Peter Petchey.

At that same site Peter also found alphabet plates, showing scenes of children playing soldiers in the centre, with letters around the outside. Not much has changed in terms of the classic children’s patterns – numbers and letters still feature heavily in items made for kids nowadays.

Some childhood decorations are remarkably constant between colonial and modern times!
Left: Alphabet plates with children playing soldiers design from St. Peter’s Vicarage, Queenstown.
Right: Peter’s own childhood alphabet plate – cute!

Jessie Garland (mostly) and Charlotte King (a little bit), 2nd May 2020

For more of Jessie’s work on colonial material culture check out her blog: They’ve also been running an NZ Archaeology Week series so there’s plenty to catch up on! And join us tomorrow for the last post in our “Little Lives” series, where we’ll be exploring more of how to keep your kids amused in colonial Milton.


Gartley, R. & Carskadden, J., 1998. Colonial Period and Early 19th Century Children’s Toy Marbles. The Muskingham Valley Archaeological Survey, Ohio.  

Fitts, R. K., 1999. ‘The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 39-62. 

One thought on “Archaeology – it’s child’s play

  1. Most fascinating! Being a marble enthusiast, it does not surprise me that you’re finding so many of them. Their history is timeless, it seems. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Wonderfully written.


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