Hull half-bowl c. 1280-1300
Diameter 10 cm
Weight 400 g
We begin with what is thought to be the oldest purpose-made sporting ball known in Britain. And a curious object it is too. For a start, it is not a sphere, but oblate in shape. Made of solid wood, it also appears to have been turnet on a lathe.
When excavated in the 1980s – from the site of a medieval timbered hall on the corner of High Street and Blacjfriargate – it was assumed to be a bowling ball, or at least, the remnants of one, for one side is flat, as if a section had split away.
Archaeological evidence from the site confirms that it dates from 13th century, which ties in with the earliest recorded bowling greens in Britain; at Southhampton and Chesterfield, both dating from the 1290. However, further analysis suggest that the Hull bowl was crafted in this odd shape deliberately, not for a green but for a form of skittles played indoors in confined spaces.
“Half-bowl” was one of several games prohibited by Edward IV in 1477, presumably because it distracted men from archery practice and fostered gambling.
Writing in 1801, Joseph Strutt described half-bowl as a game in which 12 pins were set up in a circle, with one other in the centre and two outside. When reased by a practised player, owing to its eccentric bias the half-bowl travelled in a wide, curving arc. The aim was to knock down all the pins, but only after the half-bowl had cleared the pin at the far side of the circle.
According to Strutt the game was known in Hertfordshire as rolly-polly. Indeed similar versions are still played today, as rolle bolle in Belgium, pierbol in Holland and media bola in Spain.
Given that the grounds of the hall from which the half-bowl was dug up had monastiic connections, it is therefore likely that the game had arrived on Britain’s east coast from Europe.
If so, it is only one of many imported games we shall encounter. Half-bowl, half-British. But wholly enigmatic all the same.