Ancient Britain’s Real “Toy Story”

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Photograph by Aerial-Cam/SRP 2008They just don’t make kids’ toys like they used to. Nowadays, head into any dollar store, and you can pick up an assortment of “Made in China” toys that’ll last for about 5 minutes at the hands of any active toddler. Want a toy that actually lasts? Turns out your kids were born in the wrong millennium!

In 2008, archaeologists working at the site of Stonehenge in Britain uncovered a child burial containing a variety of items, such as a pottery vessel (which may have contained food provisions for the child in the afterlife), and most remarkably, a carved chalk toy shaped like an animal.

The grave was tentatively dated between 800 B.C. and 20 B.C., and is considered a very important discovery in British pre-history. The discovery of any kind of representational artwork (human or animal) from this period is so rare that Joshua Pollard, the dig’s co-leader from the University of Bristol, commented it’s “almost to the extent where you get the impression there’s a bit of a taboo on making images of animals or people.”

There are two theories on what the toy represents, with one camp claiming it’s a hedgehog, and the other making their case for a pig. Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, expressed that “it’s without doubt a pig”, considering how common wild and domestic pigs were during the period in this region. “And once we get into historical times,” he said, “We know the pig is quite important in Celtic mythology, though not—to my knowledge—hedgehogs.”

hedgehogHe also noted that once the Iron Age got underway in Britain, it wasn’t uncommon to come across figurines. However, it is more or less agreed that this little hedgehog/pig may be the earliest known toy in British history. It was likely made originally as a toy for the infant, or was crafted in memory of the child being stillborn or dying in infancy.

As for those who try to suggest that the child’s death was a result of human ritual sacrifice, Pollard reminds the curious that during this time in history, infant mortality was very high, “so there would have been a lot of natural death.” This seems to be substantiated by a second infant burial found nearby which, although it didn’t contain a toy, held the skeleton of a sheep or goat with stones piled over its head (indicating the animal had been ritually sacrificed).

Regardless of whether this ancient toy was played with or not, there’s no denying that current toy manufacturers could learn a thing or two from prehistoric toymakers about durability!


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