Ask a Curator – Whirligig

(NPS Photo)

This little artifact proved to me the value of “accidental research.”  During cataloging, I was initially stumped by this thin, vaguely round bit of lead.  I haltingly classified it as an “unidentified metal object,” but was haunted by the two identical, perfectly central holes.  I knew it had to be something.  Later, while examining some photographs of 18th-century marbles in a book on Revolutionary War artifacts, I came across images of a whirligig, and had my answer!

So, what is all the buzz about?

The item pictured here is a whirligig, also known as a buzz disc, buzzer, or whizzer.  A whirligig is a simple toy consisting of a flat disc with two central holes.  When a string is threaded through the holes, twisted, then pulled taut, the disc spins and hums.  The whirligig dates back thousands of years; Native American cultures used a piece of clay or bone as early as 500 BC, and lead whirligigs have been recovered from medieval sites in London.  They were popular in America from colonial times through the 19th century.  The lead whirligigs found on American archeological sites – like this one from Petersburg National Battlefield – were likely crafted from musket balls, coins, or buttons.

Whirligig in Action. (Photo courtesy of



UK Detector Finds Database

Collectors’ Guide to the American Revolution


About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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4 Responses to Ask a Curator – Whirligig

  1. Pingback: The More Things Change…Finding the Familiar in the Archeological Record | NMSC Archeology & Museum Blog

  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for making this post! Is the catalog record for this object available to the public? In addition, could you provide the title of the book of Revolutionary War artifacts you were referencing when you discovered that it is a whirligig? I’m currently working on a program to have visitors make their own whirligig and would like to provide some historical context and examples. Thanks so much!


    • JessicaC says:

      Thanks for reading! We were so excited to come across our first whirligig! The catalog record for this object is maintained by Petersburg National Battlefield, so if you wish you could contact the staff there about the record. I can tell you that the object is cataloged as a toy, and that in addition to being known as a whirligig, it can also be called a buzz disc or buzzer. We found reference to these objects on page 127 of the book “Collector’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” by George C. Neumann and Frank J. Kravic. According to this book, they were “made by pounding a musket ball flat; wound on string through the holes, it spun when released.” Good luck with your program!

  3. Thank you so much for your prompt response, it is very helpful! And thank you!

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