42 Historical Objects, No. 8: Roman child’s rag doll.

Although it most likely didn’t belong to an emperor or some pivotal figure, in many ways this simple rag doll is every bit as amazing as the sword of Tiberius for telling us about the Roman world. It’s about 7 1/2 inches long, made from linen and stuffed with papyrus and rags. There’s a small glass bead protruding from the left side of the doll’s head. This was probably a peg on which to hang a hair ornament. While it’s not entirely clear, the glass bead suggests the doll was female. (Otherwise I suppose this might be a Roman “action figure”). This toy was found in Egypt and dates from the 1st to 5th centuries CE, roughly during the time Egypt was a Roman province, and the time the Western Roman Empire collapsed.

I’ve always found the history of toys to be incredibly interesting. Remains of children’s playthings have been found among the detritus left behind by almost all human civilizations. What’s amazing about it is how much kids’ tastes have remained consistent for thousands of years. I remember reading about toys found in ancient Egypt that included bouncing balls, tops, and animals with movable parts. Dolls and other representations of human figures have been universally popular. Even in our own era of video games, movie merchandise and high-tech toys, simple items like soft dolls, hobby-horses or animal figures have never been replaced.

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