From what I gather, blog posts are supposed to be insightful, so I’ll apologize up front. This isn’t going to solve any of life’s riddles. Rather, it’s more an expression of interpretive frustration. You see, we started finding these little clay balls in the pueblo room we’re excavating and I haven’t the foggiest idea as to what they are.
The first one was an oddity, but now we’re up to around 50 or so. They seem to come from contexts that include roof fall, so they might have been placed amid roofing material at the time of construction or renovation. One of the students may or may not have written in the stratum form that we had “a handful of balls and a sizable amount of wood.” I have to admit that the original draft of this post was something of an homage to Clifford Geertz and his infamous treatise on Balinese cockfighting.
Our little orbs are made of fired clay, strong enough to withstand repeated and strenuous attempts to shove them through the quarter-inch screen. They range in size from that of a small pea to that of a standard marble. They were formed into spheres, but perfection was apparently of little concern. Despite their clear contempt for me, I sort of like the little fellows.
At the eastern Mimbres site of Phyllis Pueblo, Karen Schollmeyer and I found similar balls buried in the hearth ash of abandoned rooms, perhaps as part of ritual retirements. Those, however, were relatively rare and always made of stone. I’ve also seen larger balls, likely used in kicking races. During flash floods, torrents of water roll sandstone down washes, grinding it into the shape of a ball. Historic ethnographies discuss these, explaining that by kicking them, ritual racers were emulating the rainstorms of past and hastening those of the future. But kick-balls are either stone or perishable (leather, say) and quite a bit larger.
What began as interesting was quickly becoming less than fun. I’m supposed to know stuff, right? Students keep asking me what these things are, and I can’t give them a definitive answer. I thought maybe they had been used to test clay recipes. If that were the case, though, I should have run across them before. Not only have I never seen them, but no one else here has either. And they’re not showing up elsewhere on the site. Only my room, and in surprising quantities. We finally stopped bagging them separately and now keep a generic ball sack for every level.
I emailed friends and posted pictures to Facebook. Kathy Henderson suggested gaming pieces, and this may well be the case. Chris Watkins likened them to “Moqui marbles,” which he’s seen at Fremont and Kayenta (oh, really now?) sites, but agreed with Matt Peeples that those are natural concretions. Chris Whiting reported seeing similar, albeit stone, balls near an obsidian source in Arizona. George Cowgill suggested the possibility of rattle beads inside hollow pottery containers. We do see a few vessels like that in the Southwest. They are rare, but rattle-bottom mugs and rattle-handle ladles turn up now and then. No such vessels, however, have been found here. And again, why so many? George thought they could have been used in cooking, to help maintain an even boil. Matt has seen such things, but he says those were larger. According to Marc Severson, there’s an argument that pebbles have been used in pottery production to assist in the smudging process. Maybe; we do get a ton of smudged vessels here.
These are all good ideas, but I can’t get past the fact that our orb distribution is so concentrated. So many, yet in just one room. Surely the folks living in Feature 402 weren’t the only ones smudging vessels, boiling water, or playing games.
Kate Sarther Gann suggested I write a blog post, which I guess is what I’ve done. Now that I’m thinking of a way to wrap it up, I’ve come to realize that maybe there is some insight to be had after all. Years ago, I expressed my frustration at the lack of available data for an analysis, saying something whiny, like, “We’re just never going to know!” Peggy Nelson replied, “If you want to work in the Southwest, that’s something you’d better get used to.” So maybe, if nothing else, I’ll learn to embrace my ignorance…at least this once.