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 http://www.gunstonhall.org/education/resources/discover/pc6)

References:

Wikipedia

UK Detector Finds Database

Collectors’ Guide to the American Revolution

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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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One Response to Ask a Curator – Whirligig

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

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