roman 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.

I would almost guarantee that if you saw this doll in its like-new condition, dressed up and painted as it was intended to be seen, it would look indistinguishable from at least one kind of doll on the market today in 2014. Yet, when this doll’s owner last played with it, Constantine the Great might not have been born yet, the Mayan civilization was not yet at its peak and Byzantium was still a tiny one-horse town on the Bosporus. Pretty amazing to think about.

This doll is in the collection of the British Museum in London.

The photo of the Roman child’s rag doll is copyright (c) by the Trustees of the British Museum. I use it here in accordance with their terms of use.