The playing habits of ancient societies have shaped the way we, children and adults alike, play and entertain ourselves today. Everything from rag dolls to gambling games were originally created centuries ago and constructed from organic materials. Take a trip with us back through time as we explore the most familiar (and often surprising) games and toys that have become staples in our modern-day playtime.
Toy Animals From Mohenjo-Daro
Children from the ancient Indus Valley were typically seen playing with animal figurines made out of baked clay. Sometimes the figurines would be made in mechanical design, so the children could move their legs and tails. A lot of the toys were eventually placed on wheels, making the clay animals mobile for playtime.
Egyptian Soldier Dolls
These baked clay soldier figurines were created during Ancient Egyptian rule. And although they may be dolls, children rarely played with them. Instead, they were created to protect the dead, and placed in the tomb of a newly mummified corpse. The toy soldiers protected a dead body’s soul in the afterlife.
Ancient Greek Knuckle Bones
Knuckle bones are exactly what they sound like. Created from the pastern bone of either a sheep, goat, or calf, the hard lumps were thrown into the air and caught on the back of the hand. Two players would normally face off, and nicknames for the game included “riding the elephant” or “horses in the stable.” The knuckle bones game is similar to the jacks we have today.
In Ancient Rome, the crepundia was used to entertain infants and small babies. Ivory and stone were strung together on a string, creating a distraction for the babies. This use is not unlike the mobiles parents often hang over babies’ cribs. The crepundia was also considered an amulet, often worn by pregnant women, in order to ward of evil spirits.
Leather Skin Balls
Leather balls in Ancient Egypt was usually made out of leather skin and papyrus seeds. Rubber was an unfamiliar resource known to this ancient civilization, and the leather provided children with the bouncy, soft texture needed to throw a ball safely. They were mostly played with by male children, with small Egyptian females often having to play less competitive games.
Ancient Chinese Kites
In the 21st century, kites have become a major component of beach and park life during the spring and summer. The kite was originally invented by the Ancient Chinese, and it was first made out of wooden materials to resemble the the shape of a bird. Now of course, kites are made of all manner of materials and made to look like every animal or shape under the sun and are enjoyed all over the world.
The first dollhouses appeared in Germany during the 1500’s, and belonged exclusively to the most wealthy Europeans. They were primarily composed of wood, metals, and expensive fabrics, and later steadily rose in popularity in England and other neighboring countries. Each dollhouse represented its owner’s personal taste.
Ancient Greek Yo-yos
The Ancient Greeks inspired the original yo-yo. What has become a favorite toy of modern-day society was originally created in 500 BC. They were used as ceremonial gifts when a child came of age, and were constructed out of metal, wood, and terra cotta clay.
English Alphabet Toys
In England during the early 1600’s, the letters of the alphabet were incorporated onto toys such as wooden blocks. The purpose of pushing the letters into the realm of children’s play things was to enhance their learning from an earlier age. It was said to increase their level of reading and spelling, but this mainly applied to those living in a high economic class.
The Ball In The Wooden Cup
Tossing a stringed ball into a hand-held cup can be quite addictive, which is why this toy still hasn’t gotten old no matter how ancient it is. In 16th-century London, the cup and ball were both made out of wood, but derivatives of the childhood toy have expanded across culture for centuries. In Japan, the game is now called kendama, and is used with two cups instead of one.
Patolli Game Boards
The Ancient Aztecs and Mayans were known for inventing and playing the board game Patolli. It was founded by the civilizations’ nobles, and society members would gather to watch them play at court. Similar to chess, yet not as complex, two opposing players would attempt to move their six pieces across the board to capture their opponent’s treasure.
Battledore is the ancient version of today’s badminton. Battledore, first created by the Ancient Romans, used smaller paddles and a small, circular object as the shuttlecock. During the Middle Ages it was altered to badminton as the paddles got larger and the shuttlecock became lighter in weight.
Ancient Egyptian Harps
The Ancient Egyptian Harp was a musical instrument used to entertain both adults and children. Music was extremely important to the Egyptians, and they constructed a multitude of instruments that supplemented the harp’s melody. The first harps were created in a shape of a large bow, and date back to 3000 BC.
Toy Wagons From Ancient Greece
Toy wagons from Ancient Greece were usually constructed to look like chariots, and often had a string attached to the front so a child could could pull it along while playing. Ancient Greek adults may be known for using other large, horse-drawn wagons during wartime, but the kids enjoyed their smaller versions as well. These toys could be made from fire clay or wooden materials.
Native American Stone Marbles
Native American stone marbles were originally created from rocks taken from the waterways near which the Indians used to live. Hand carved from river stones, the marbles were said to be used by adults more than children. Authentic marbles have been uncovered at old, Native American burial sites.
A bamboo dragonfly is similar to a toy helicopter, originally created by the Ancient Chinese around 400 BC. The earliest bamboo dragonflies had a feather at the end of the makeshift rotor, and were made out of thin slices of bamboo and wood. Interestingly enough, the small children’s toy would eventually provide insight into one of humanity’s great inventions.
Ancient Scandinavia brought the idea of a metal, blowing horn to life. Also used for drinking, the horns were often brought out during times of celebration and as a sounding cry in ancient Scandinavia and many other ancient societies. Constructed from precious metal, the horns were were considered luxury collectibles.
The Wax Tablet
The wax tablet was used to teach young children from ancient times all the way through the middle ages. As a reusable piece of material, it was extra valuable as each student only need one. The earliest surviving tablet dates back as far as the 14th century, and numerous models have been preserved in water deposits for museum displays.
9th Century Xylophone
The xylophone may be a fun instrument to play, but it’s also the ultimate children’s toy… if you’re looking to spark creativity in your child! Originating from Southeast Asia, the first xylophones were made out of bamboo and other fragile, wood-like materials. By the 16th century, xylophones had spread across the continent and into Eastern Europe.
Iranian Baked Clay Animals
Similar to the Ancient Indus Valley society, Ancient Iran made baked clay animals for their children to play with. However, adults indulged in the artistic craft to produce works of art for their homes. The clay animals were then used as a children’s toys and household decorations and gifts.
Chinese Gambling Dice
With the use of ancient gambling dice, the Chinese used to a play a primitive game called Sic Bo. As a game of chance, the objective was to place your bet on a number that you believed (or hoped) the rolled dice would equal to. The game transcended into modern times, making its way into modern American casinos.
The Ancient Chinese used bamboo flutes for more than just idol play. It was used as a bedtime ritual for children to help them go to sleep and to play with during the daytime when their parents were busy. The bamboo flute, among other Chinese instruments, were used to teach children the importance of culture and tradition.
Ancient Egyptian Trumpet
The first trumpets date back to the time of King Tut’s rule in Ancient Egypt. The boy king had his two metal-made trumpets buried in his tomb along with his corpse and other golden treasure. They have been rumored to claim magical powers that supposedly summon war and cause disruption in the museum they are housed in.
Ancient Aiora Swing
The aiora swing is an ancient model of the modern day swing. The Ancient Greeks invented the swing for both adults and children, although the toy became most popular with women who bore children or attended social festivals. The swing wasn’t necessarily the most sturdy invention at the time, strictly constructed out of a piece of plywood and two ropes, but we guess that isn’t too different from some of today’s homemade swing-sets.
15th Century Rebec
The rebec was a pear-shaped instrument that was played frequently in the Renaissance Era. It had originated in the 9th century, but didn’t become popular until the late 14th century when crossed over into Western Europe and out of the Middle East and Africa. Young boys specifically played the boat-shaped instrument during the Middle Ages.
Tudor Times Cello
During the Tudor family reign of Wales and England in the late 1400’s to the beginning of the 1500’s, cellos became the new musical trend. Branching off from the violin family, cellos became popular because of their size, but were scaled to fit the smaller bodies of children whose families could afford the instrument. It was originally used for dance music only.
Terra Cotta Bird Whistles
In Ancient Roman times, the terra cotta bird whistles were a popular toy choice for most children. Made from terra cotta material, which is essentially kiln-fired clay, the bird would produce a slight musical rhythm for children and resemble the noise a flying companion would typically make. They were also popular in Ancient Pakistan as well as Ancient Egypt.
6th Century Chess
The earliest found evidence of the invention of chess was in 6th century AD, India. Made from pure stone, both pieces and board, the game eventually spread to Persia and China. After the Arabic population conquered Persia, Southern Europe adapted the game as its own and became a favorite game playing tradition in Muslim societies.
Ancient Aztec Tlachtli
The Ancient Aztecs weren’t the only Mesoamerican society to partake in a competitive game of Tlachtli. The Incans and the Mayans also participated in the ancient sport beginning around 1400 BC. The popular ball game included using a ball made out of stone where teams attempted to pass the ball through a stone hoop above their heads.
Mehen Board Game
Ancient Egyptians invented and indulged in their personal board game, Mehen. The title of the game honored their mythological snake god, and was founded around 3000 BC. The game lost its appeal around 2300 BC, and although still referenced on Egyptian stone around 700 BC, the instructions and objective of the game remain completely lost in time.
Indonesian Toy Bank
From the looks of it, piggy banks aren’t only familiar to modern-day kids, but to Ancient Indonesian children as well. The ancient piggy bank may be a bit more odd looking than how we’ve constructed it to appear today, but the baked clay sculpture still has its coin slit up top. Saving money is a timeless skill.
Hounds And Jackals
The Ancient Egyptians have taken over our list with their toys. Pictured above, is the 29-hole game, Hounds and Jackals. It dates back to the Egyptian 13th dynasty, and while it was a simple, two-piece game, the Pharaohs played it religiously. The oldest model discovered was found in a Theben tomb and is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Slingshots And Clay Ammo
Ancient Romans are responsible for popularizing the slingshot. The Israelite army was the first to use a sling as a weapon 3,000 years ago, but the Romans took it on as a full-scale weapon after perfecting the skillful tactics to effectively use it in war. It was a simple woven sling with stone ammunition in ancient times, and today it’s a less-than-friendly playground toy according to teachers and principals.
Ancient Mesopotamian gambling boards, such as the one pictured above, weren’t necessarily popular, but loved by those who became addicted to the game. The board functions quite similar to a modern American casino game, made from wood and using tokens to place bets. Not all boards used dice to gather their number results; therefore the objective became moving your chip to the other side of a player’s board.
Invented in Ancient China more than 5,000 years ago, Weiqi is an abstract board game that is actively played today in Asian countries. Also called Go, the game was considered a scholarly art and fundamental component of Chinese culture. It was mostly played by adults in ancient times, as it still is today.
Senet Board Game
Another famous Egyptian board game, Senet, dates back to pre-dynastic rule. Founded in 3100 BC, the game’s rules were significantly placed on luck and were believed to indicate which player was truly protected by the Gods. Many corpses were buried with the game in their tomb to provide entertainment in the afterlife.
Game Boards Of The Victorian Era
Victorian board games were a a stylish way to entertain at a parlor party during this particular time period. They were extremely popular in this golden age of gaming. Many board games could be played with as many as six players and usually consisted of logic and moving from one hypothetical situation to another.
Shabti dolls were also known as the afterlife dolls to the Ancient Egyptians. These figurines were meant to accompany a dead soul into the afterlife, and were not to be played with while living. The doll would be placed in a tomb alongside a mummy, and was composed of stone or wood depending on the status of the deceased.
Ancient Chinese Darts
Everyone loves a good, competitive game of darts when they spend an evening at a dive bar. In ancient times, the Chinese mainly used them for weapons before they began to realize their recreational advantages. Favored by Chinese knights, the darts were a skill to master and soon evolved, through European Influence, into what they’ve become today.
Chinese Playing Cards
Ancient Chinese playing cards date back as far as 1400 BC. The technique and strategy that influenced the playing card phenomena may have been based in religion, and they were often paired with playing dice. Referred to as the leaf game in the 9th century, the original rules and guidelines for the freshly invented playing cards were lost by 1067.