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A metamorphic rock formed by alteration of limestone or dolomite, often irregularly colored by impurities, and used especially in architecture and sculpture.

Granular limestone or dolomite that has recrystallized under the influence of heat, pressure, and aqueous solutions. The main mineral in marble is calcite. Commercially, “marble” includes all decorative calcium-rich rocks that can be polished, as well as some serpentines. Marbles are used principally for buildings and monuments, interior decoration, statuary, tabletops, and novelties. Colour and appearance are their most important qualities. Statuary marble, the most valuable variety, must be pure white and of uniform grain size.

The early history of marbles is still obscure. Certainly, in the ancient world children played games rolling nuts, and coloured clay balls have been found in Egyptian tombs, but it is not known for sure what they were used for. It seems unlikely that such a simple and obvious game did not occur to people before the first definite references (as tribekugeln) in 13th century Germany, and in Bruegel’s picture of children’s games in 1560. The first mention in English calls the game ‘bowling-stones’, but this is a translation by Charles Hoole of Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (1659). There are numerous variants of marbles play, and usually a local specialist terminology to go with each.

The marbles available in England in the late 17th century were probably made of actual marble, or at least alabaster, but later materials include earthenware, painted porcelain (imported from Germany), stone, and clay. The modern glass marbles, with the intriguing coloured swirl in the middle, emerged in the 1840s, made possible by developments in glass manufacture. Once these appeared they rapidly became more prized than the drab clay marbles prevalent at the time, and gradually superseded them as mass production (latterly usually abroad) brought the price down. Some players used metal ball-bearings, but others refused to play with anyone using such things as they could too easily destroy the glass or clay marbles. Another source of supply was the round stopper used in early fizzy-drink bottles. Local names include: Taws, Alleys (Blood-alleys had a streak of red through them), Cat’s eyes, and Marvels.

Marbles has been a children’s game for a very long time, but there are a few instances of its survival in the adult sphere, particularly in Sussex, where a well-known annual Good Friday championship match takes place.


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