The Game of Marbles: From the Roman Era to Modern Times

July 12, 2018 | Nora Ekawani


A marble, a small spherical children’s toy made from clay, marble, or glass, is known by various names in Indonesia. Some call it gundu (Betawi, Jakarta), keneker (Java), kaleci (Sunda), ekar (Palembang), guli (Malay region), and kleker (Banjar). The diversity of names for the marbles shows that marbles are played in almost all regions in Indonesia.



Boys are usually playing marbles in the yard. Marbles are rarely played indoors. Therefore, this game is very useful to train children’s motor skills. Other than that, this game also has other benefits such as to train children to control emotions, to hone the ability to think, to improve accuracy and thoroughness. Moreover, children’s social-interaction skills are stimulated in this game; The ability to compete and establish friendships and honesty.

How to play marbles? The basic of the games of marbles is a suitable field for playing.  There are no specifications, such as definitive length and width, for the field. A plot of vacant land or sandy soil, even a cement floor, is enough for this game to take place. We need to draw a circle on the ground. Then, each player puts a couple (the amount is mutually agreed) of his marbles. Now, marbles in the circle are the ‘main target’ of this game. Next, each player must attempt to shoot on target in the circle some distance away from it.



What is the meaning of a shot is this; Each player rolls a marble from his thumb and clicked against the targeted marble in the circle with a flick of a finger, as hard and as fast as he can. The aim of this shot is so that the marbles inside the circle can be shot out of the circle. Each player, through his marble shots, attempts to shoot as many marbles out of the circle as possible. Of course, it’s okay for a player not to do that if he wants to lose in that game. The game winner is the one who shoots the most marbles out of the circle. The game ends when all the marbles have been successfully shot out of the circle.

Often, the marbles that are shot out of the circle on shooting turn will become the shooter’s. However, the marbles may return to their owners. This depends on the agreement at the beginning of the game; Whether just having fun or at the same time there are certain penalties and ‘payments’ that apply.

What is the history and the story of this game so that it is played in almost all of Indonesia? The oldest marbles that have been found to date dated 2000-1700 BC. The oldest marbles are now a collection of The British Museum, London. The marbles were discovered in Crete, Greece, on the Minoan of Petsofa site. Marbles were quite popular in the Ancient Roman era. A Roman poet Ovid or Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC-18 AD) once wrote poetry about this game. Roman kings played this game in their childhood. King Romulus Augustus’s childhood records can at least be evidence. We can find a number of reliefs in the relics of the Ancient Roman era which depict children playing marbles from seeds. This game became a part of the Saturnalia Festival, a kind of celebration before the Roman Christmas. At that time, people gave each other a bag of seeds that were played as marbles as a sign of friendship.

In other parts of the world, marbles are also very popular. The game of marbles, called bille in France that means small balls, has been known since the 12th century. The Dutch call them knikkers. Marbles appeared around 1694 in England. The English call this game marbles. Initially, marbles was the name for a small spherical toy made of marble stone from Germany. Long before that, the British people knew this game as bowls or knikkers. Marbles are also known in Turkey as hakan tuncer.

In Southeast Asia, the game of marbles originally used round seeds and fruits, even cowrie shells* were used in this game in Burma. The Southeast Asia region is rich in children’s games. Modern studies have shown that every large community in Southeast Asia has dozens of children’s toys and many of them are similar in shape to toys in other parts of the world.



Well, the form of marbles that we are familiar with today actually originated from the technology of glass marbles making, which was only discovered in 1864 in Germany. The original one-color marbles became colorful like candy. Shipments and manufacture of glass marbles were forced to stop due to World War II. This technology then soon spread throughout Europe and America, before being produced on a large scale and developed in each country around the world, including Indonesia.

Marbles, which we know as everyday games and often played in the afternoons by boys from the neighboring village, turned out to have a long history and a long journey to get to our yards.

Nora Ekawani
Penulis, Lulusan Arkeologi UI, Pengamat Budaya, Pencinta Wastra

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