Sometimes games are just fun but sometimes games can make you or break you. This is the case with chunkey, a Native American game. Invented around 600 AD by indigenous peoples of the Cahokia region (near modern day St. Louis, Missouri), chunkey was a popular game that spread across much of North America. There were variations in the rules, depending on the cultures playing it, but the basic premise was that a large ground stone disc (a chunkey) was rolled across a level field by a player. One or multiple players from the opposing side would then throw sticks (also called chunkey) underhanded at the stone, aiming to get as close as possible or to touch the stone once it stopped rolling. Chunkey stones took time to make, were considered valuable, and were often communal property of a village.
Although the game could be played casually, Chunkey tournaments were a big deal with much pageantry and costumes, often drawing people from far away to participate and watch. Think of it as an ancient Super Bowl. Gambling was common at these events with players risking everything, including their honor, on the outcome. Reportedly some unfortunate defeated players killed themselves after a loss.
Chunkey continued to be played after Europeans arrived in North America and was subsequently documented by some who frequented the events. However, sometime in the mid-19th century, the game lost favor, likely as a result of the decimation of indigenous cultures by those same Europeans.
This brings us to the chunkey stone excavated at Ferry Farm. Visitors who see it immediately note that it looks like a stone doughnut. Personally I believe it to be one of our coolest artifacts.
Oddly enough, this chunkey was found suspiciously close to three other prehistoric artifacts, not all of which belong on an archaeological site in Virginia. Two stone axes and an odd bead were recovered right next to the chunkey in soils that were plowed which caused the mixing of artifacts from different time periods. The axes date to the late archaic period (3,000 BCE – 1,000 BC) while the chunkey stone, as stated above is thousands of years younger. Additionally, the bead, which is still a bit of a mystery, is a type of sandstone not found in Virginia.
So does this mean that indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago were playing chunkey on a site that would eventually be George Washington’s home? Maybe…but maybe not. When you add all of these factors together it starts to look more and more like these items were collected in the historic period and did not necessarily belong to any tribes living at Ferry Farm. The English and their colonists were prodigious collectors of natural and Native American artifacts. Famous colonial collectors include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
The chunkey stone and these other Native American artifacts are still very cool finds but definitely a reminder that removing artifacts from their original location without preserving their context greatly limits how archaeologists can interpret them. And, in this case, may throw archaeologists a bit of a curve ball …er, a curve chunkey!
Play a version of chunkey during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology at Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm. For more details, visit kenmore.org.
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor