The Uncertain Fate of a Princely Diversion

An Historical Survey of Tops

By: Douglas W. Gould

Originally Published in 1980

View PDF

Sculptured on the walls of the palace of Ariris (formerly read Araras) at Carche­mish, ca. 780 B.C., is the representation of the king’s sons at play. Each prince grasps a whip in his right hand and holds a top in the left. A third top, perhaps 8 cm. high, upright and presumably spinning, is shown at their feet. The whips appear to be made of two lashes, perhaps 30 cm. long, set in a stock or handle of about the same length.

The scene must rank as one of the oldest for this manner of pastime. In its broadest sense, a top is an object with a principal axis about which it can rotate. Until modern times, the term “top” has usually connoted play, pastime, amusement, but play is not necessarily confined to children as may be seen in the representations of bearded males and skirted females.

Of at least six major forms of the top now recognized, there is evidence that four were known to Classical peoples. These forms were: the twirler or teetotum set in motion by the thumb and one or more of the fingers of the hand twisting the stem of the top; the yo-yo, unchanged in prin­ciple to the present day; the buzzer (equivalent to a button on a doubled string), and the whipping-top.

The first form is preeminent because it is so readily produced from materials at hand; its manipulation asks for deftness rather than strength. Of the four types, the buzzer is the only one which has failed to survive from Classical times. We know it only as art. Probably known to all peoples as a noise maker (buzzing or humming), it is possible that Greek artisans refined the construction and showed that intensity and pitch could be varied through a modest range by manipulation of the cords.

Whether trivial or not, the top and its play are part of a persistent pattern trace­able for several millennia, Great gaps appear in its identifiable history (if the term history is warranted). The number of forms increases through time, due in part to the better chance of survival hut also, in part, to new and perhaps accidental variants. The storage areas of the Univer­sity Museum afford ample evidence of many primitive peoples having one or more forms of the top. So widespread is its dispersion that it is probable that no permanently inhabited portion of the earth has been without this toy. With few exceptions, the Museum’s specimens are ethnographical rather than archaeological. Many were gathered from remote peoples who had had little or no contact with European ways.

Curators often face difficulty in classi­fying such objects in their collections when there is no record of their source. The University Museum plans to formalize information about this toy as known from such early examples as that at Carchemish to that of the 20th century Sherbro, and invites readers of Expedition to participate in this project by sending in data about the spinning top they may have encountered in other cultures both ancient and modern.

Cite This Article

Gould, Douglas W.. "The Uncertain Fate of a Princely Diversion." Expedition Magazine 22, no. 3 (March, 1980): -. Accessed February 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to