Chunkey Stones in Maryland


Chunkey stone recovered from the Mason Island II (18MO13) site, a Late Woodland village in Montgomery County.

Chunkey stone recovered from the Mason Island II (18MO13) site, a Late Woodland village in Montgomery County.

The approaching end of summer and the beginning of football season prompted me to write one final sports-themed blog—a discussion of the sport of chunkey. Also called tchung-kee, chunky or chenco, this game involved throwing or sliding sticks at a polished, disc-shaped stone known as a chunkey stone. The game is believed to have originated around 600 AD along the Mississippi (Pauketat 2004), but is commonly associated with the city of Cahokia near modern day St. Louis and the Mississippian cultures that flourished in the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from approximately 800 AD to 1500 AD. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, the game of chunkey was played in some form across much of North America, from Montana to the Carolinas (Pauketat 2009). The game caught the attention of European and American visitors, who have left numerous written accounts of the game as it was played in different regions (Lawson 1709, Adair 1775, Bartram 1789, Culin 1907). A common theme that runs throughout these writings is the vigorous enthusiasm of the players, whose games on specially built ball fields or yards often lasted many hours. Large crowds gathered to cheer the players on, and to gamble on the results of the game.

Archaeologist Warren DeBoer (1993) argues that archaeological evidence of the game of chunkey can be used to monitor major social and political changes taking place between fourteen to six hundred years ago, during what archaeologists term the Late Woodland and later Mississippian periods. What began as a popular game that sparked gambling during the Late Woodland was appropriated by the elite members of society in the Mississippian period in the American Southeast. The elite sought to regulate local gambling, which formed an important means of exchange.

1832 painting entitled “Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” by George Catlin (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

1832 painting entitled “Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” by George Catlin (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

There is no documentary evidence to support the idea that this type of regulatory behavior, or even the game of chunkey itself, was occurring in Maryland (Morehouse 2011). But the presence of chunkey stones on at least four different archaeological sites in the state (Marshall 1992) does demonstrate that ideas (and objects) circulated widely among native peoples in the American Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. By far the largest collection of chunkey stones in Maryland—115 complete, broken or incomplete examples—were recovered during excavations at the Winslow Site (18MO9). Many of the stones had been manufactured from fine-grained red sandstone, an outcropping of which was nearby, and archaeologists have concluded that making (and possibly trading) chunkey stones were important activities at this Late Woodland village (Marshall 1992).

Could Maryland native peoples have been producing chunkey stones for trade without actually playing the game themselves? It seems curious that there are no ethnohistoric accounts of the game in either Maryland or Virginia. Perhaps one day in the future, archaeologists will uncover the remains of a chunkey yard, but for now, presence of chunkey stones in Maryland remains a mystery.

Copy of William Bartram’s sketch of a chunkey yard, from his unpublished manuscript “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians.”

Copy of William Bartram’s sketch of a chunkey yard, from his unpublished manuscript “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians.”

References

Adair, James
1775 The History of the American Indians. Series in American Studies. Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York.

Bartram, William
1789 “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians” Originally edited by E. G. Squier, first published in 1853.

Culin, Stewart
1907 Games of the North American Indians. Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

DeBoer, Warren
1993 Like a Rolling Stone: The Chunkey Game and Political Organization in Eastern North America. Southeastern Archaeology. Volume 12, No. 2:83-92.

Lawson, John
1709 A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. Originally published in London, 1709. Re-issued in 1967 by the University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, edited and with an introduction and notes by Hugh Talmage Lefler.

Marshall, A. Ray
1992 Discoidals and the Game of Chunkey. Appendix II in The Montgomery Focus: A Late Woodland Potomac River Culture, by Richard G. Slattery and Douglas R. Woodward. Bulletin Number 2 of the Archeological Society of Maryland, pp. 169-171.

Morehouse, Rebecca
2011 Native American Gaming Stones. Curator’s Choice, January 2011. Available at http://www.jefpat.org/CuratorsChoiceArchive/2011CuratorsChoice/Jan2011-NativeAmericanGamingStones.html, accessed 9-9, 2013.

Pauketat, Timothy R.
2004 Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge University Press.

2009 Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Viking Penguin, New York.

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