Musings from the Museum #4

Musings from the Museum #4

Musings from the Museum #4 1024 683 SGSocAdmin

The Fun of Chasing a Mystery Object

-Patty Harris

As a fairly new member of the SGS, I cannot tell you the joy it brings me to be a member, from the first day of being shown round I felt welcomed despite being completely non-academic.

When I enter the building, the 21st century slips from my shoulders and I’m home.

My love of history stems from being born in a house called Purley Hall, built in 1609 and rumoured to be heaving with ghosts, Warren Hastings is said to one of them, together with the large Indian menagerie he kept whilst awaiting his trial.

My Mother claimed to have met some of them!

We went to the estate school, all twelve of us, with a headmistress who adored the Romans and would whisk us off to sites at the slightest excuse. Does anyone remember Ascension Day outings? I can’t recall why it was a day off, but we went to museums, the Natural History Museum was my favourite.

Reading Museum was also a magnet for me, every other Saturday we would go to the library and after books were exchanged I would race upstairs to the Museum with its Anglo-Saxon and Roman treasures. All these things shaped my fascination.

When Sharon asked me if I would like to research some of the more obscure items in the Roslyn cabinet, I thought I would have a go, what fun. The most interesting were the ivory or bone sticks, about 12cm long with carved heads in the shape of hearts, feathers, etc., they look like large cocktail sticks but they are flat with blunt ends.

The game of Spillikins, Spellikins, Jack Straws, Pickup Sticks or Mikado are all the same game, a set of straws are tipped onto the table and sticks are removed with a hook until the players dislodge an unintended one. Each stick has a number on the shaft and the players win with the largest score. Originating probably in China (where else) this game has been played for many centuries. There does not seem to be a particular rule regarding the numbers of straws, some sets have 100 but the average number seems to be in the twenties. Digging deeper into the antique sales sites, I began to find sets that looked familiar to ours, Roman numerals on the shaft and the same patterns of carving on the heads and what should come to light but our old friends, the Napoleonic Prisoners of War at Norman Cross.

There are several boxes of Spillikins, some in the straw work boxes we are familiar with and some with the most beautiful ornate fretwork boxes carved from bone, the straw boxes with their contents appear to be quite common but, of course, we cannot tell whether they are complete sets, unlikely I would think.

So, in conclusion, it’s very likely that these are Napoleonic P.O.W. Bone spillikin gaming pieces, given our proximity to Peterborough and the fact we have other pieces of straw work. If you have an opportunity to look at these closely, they are exquisite work.

I thoroughly enjoyed this project, but the one I’m working on at the moment is going to take me considerably longer, there appear to be innumerable Persian Gods, wish me luck!

[This post is part of our series of ‘Musings from the Museum’ written by Society members, volunteers and friends. If you would like to contribute, please email outreach@sgsoc.org.]

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