Toys and Games

Even in the times of gravest calamities and shortage, people did find time for games and other ways of making their everyday lives brighter, regardless of whether it was a ducal palace of a hut of a peasant family. In the 19th century, even poorest peasants had simple wood-carved toys for their children. Historical sources refer somewhat to the games the aristocrats played in the 14th and early 15th century. Jan Długosz writes in his Polish Chronicle about Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, who “used to go hunting or play chess whenever he could find some time to rest, but both happened very rarely because, in his opinion, only an insane ruler of completely narrow mind chooses hunting thus abandoning the much more important state affairs.” Learning to play chess, by the way, was an obligatory part of knightly upbringing in Western Europe at that time. Historical sources refer to the brothers of the German Order who would game away significant amounts of money during their military raids in Lithuania. People in the Ruthenian cities of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania learned to play chess earlier.

The “infamous” tabletop games

Already in the 13th century, the Orthodox Church attempted banning alcohol consumption as well as dicing and playing chess in some of its legal documents. Then, just like in later times, various tabletop games did not enjoy a reputation of decent activity. For instance, the 16th-century book of acts of the wojt of Kaunas includes the following pledge of a person: “[I wow] not to drink beer, neither Lithuanian nor German, nor wine, nor mead, nor vodka for two years […] and, in addition to that, not to play cards, dice and balls and draughts and not other infamous games.”

Historical sources from the first centuries of the GDL rarely refer to toys and games. Archaeological findings provide more information on the matter. In a monograph Lithuania’s Oldest Toys (2011) archaeologist Povilas Blaževičius describes all toys found in Lithuania dated from the 13th through 17th century as well as various elements of game inventories, and even musical instruments and ice-skates. He wrote about more than 350 items of which 276 have been found in Vilnius. Certainly, that does not mean that residents of Vilnius played games more often. That just reflects the fact that archaeologists have explored the territories of Vilnius’ castles and the old city more profoundly than other areas.

Attributes of chess, an “intellectual” game, are more common in the territories of ducal castles and cities.

Most bone-carved chess figurines from the 14th and 15th century have been found in the Island Castle of Trakai and the Peninsula Castle of Trakai (11) as well as in the Lower Castle in Vilnius (11). A fragment of turned chess figurine made of bone has been found in the territory of the former ducal residence on the Altar Hill in Kernavė. Excavations in the territory of the Lower Castle in Vilnius yielded the earliest known remnants of chessboard, which dates to the second half of the 15th century. The surviving fragment made of encaustic clay features rounded corners, small legs and three 4×4 cm white and blue glazed squares.

The Altar Hill in Kernavė yielded Lithuania’s earliest cube-shaped dice, which dates to either the 13th or the 14th century. All other dice unearthed by Lithuanian archaeologists represent a considerably later period of the 17th century. The dice from Kernavė is different from contemporary ones in terms of the combination of pips on its sides. The sum of pips on opposite sides of a dice is usually seven, because 6 is opposite to 1, 3 is opposite to 4 and 2 is opposite to 5. On the dice from Kernavė 6 is opposite to 5, 3 is opposite to 4 and 2 is opposite to 1. That combination was apparently widespread from the 12th to the 14th century. People used dice not just for gambling but also to play various tabletop games, and in magic.

Entertainment for adults and children

City dwellers trained to hit targets and improved their nimbleness by playing different “sport” games. Archaeological findings in the Lower Castle in Vilnius include 24 small leather balls or their fragments from the period between the 14th and the 16th century. The balls, four to ten centimetres in diameter, were made by sewing together several – usually three – leather pieces after stuffing them with moss, wool, leather spares or other materials. These balls were good for throwning, kicking, rolling or hit them with a club. We can only guess what kind of games people played using them. Among the balls found, one was wooden and about eight centimetres in diameter.

Scholars speculate that wooden balls were used playing skittles, cricket and other similar outdoor games.

Cultural layers representing the 13th and the 14th century in cities sometimes yield wooden items of unclear purpose, often associated to religious ceremonies and rituals. One such example is clubs with ball-shaped ends quite often found in Kernavė and in the territories of Vilnius castles. They are considered ceremonial, but no one has been able to deny yet that they were used to hit a ball.

As many as 44 skittles, most of them from the 14th of the 15th century, have been unearthed in the territory of Vilnius castles. Skittle makers used animal finger bones made heavier by filling them with led through boreholes. From the 12th through the 16th century, almost the entire Europe played skittles using bone pins. Our ethnographic sources also refer to skittles or a variety of rounders.

Small-size primitively-carved wooden copies of various items unearthed in different cultural layers in cities should also be categorised as children’s toys. Findings in the Lower Castle of Vilnius include two handles of wooden swords, a miniature front spindle and small wheels of a cart. A wooden arrow tip, a tiny knife, a small spade, a key, and a small bast boat have been found in Kernavė. It is possible, however, that archaeologists are wrong in categorising some of those items as toys. For instance, the bast boat could be used as a float for a net.

Gintautas Vėlius