Object of the Week: A 16th century bowling ball used to judge a man's character

By Ben Miller | 09 March 2016

Object of the Week: Split and distorted, this willow bowling ball was used in a variety of games at a 16th century mansion

A photo of a wooden bowls jack from the 16th century found by Crossrail and mentioned by Shakespeare's Cloten
© Crossrail
This wooden ball, found by archaeologists working on the huge new Crossrail underground tunnels across London, may either have been a jack for 16th century bowls or a ball for a skittle alley at Worcester House mansion in East London.

At 68mm from top to bottom, it compares well with the modern unbiased jack, which is a shade less than five millimetres smaller.

Cloten, a character in Shakespeare’s 1609 Cymbeline, could have uttered the first reference to the sporting jack when he wondered: “Was there ever man had such luck! When I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away”.

The use of a target ball had been fundamental to ancient variants of the game and is of great antiquity. The game had been banned among commoners from the late 14th century, although repeated statues and regulations were imposed – two by Henry VIII, which might imply the restrictions were not always obeyed, but that there was an association with social status that had to be defended.

Entertainments and shared leisure were important in an era of shifting personal alliances and internecine family feuds. Judging a man’s character at skittles or bowls, by repute, could have been a life-saving skill with so much staked on personal relationships.

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