The last scene to be conserved during this summer’s Restoring an American Treasure has just gone on view. Scene 16: Indians at Their Games, depicts a group of Native Americans playing chunkey, a game with ancient roots. To tell us more about chunkey, we have Amy Clark, curatorial research assistant specializing in Ancient American art.
The main objective of chunkey was to throw a long spear or stick at a rolling disk. The person who threw the stick closest to the resting place of the disk was declared the winner. Although the game rules varied by region and evolved over time, chunkey was considered a competitive, gambling sport by all.
The earliest examples of chunkey stones (also called discoidals) were recovered from Late Woodland sites (600 AD) in the American Bottom region of southwestern Illinois. Chunkey spread throughout the midwest and southeast parts of the United States during the Mississippian period and remained popular after European contact. Ethnographic accounts of early European contact with Native Americans document the popularity of chunkey.
Although the wooden sticks do not survive, examples of discoidals are still recovered from archaeological contexts today. The stones were carved into a disk shape, typically with concave sides. As shown in Scene 16, some discoidals have perforated centers. The stone is highly polished and smooth, allowing it to be rolled easily across the ground. There is great variation in the color, size, and style of discoidals, including chunkey stones made of modeled clay.
Chunkey was an important aspect of Native American life and can be seen in a variety of art forms. Delicately incised shell gorgets contain images of chunkey players with discoidals. The Saint Louis Art Museum currently has on view in Gallery 100 a beautifully carved flint clay effigy pipe in the form of a chunkey player. The kneeling figure holds a discoidal in his right hand and two sticks in his left hand. A discoidal is also on view in the same gallery.