Sat | Sep 19, 2020

Celebration of Jamaica's heritage

Published:Friday | December 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

This week's toy feature is special to many Jamaicans, particularly men and boys. Gigs, known elsewhere as spin-tops or tops, are among the oldest toys discovered by archaeologists.

One of the oldest has been discovered in Iraq and dated to 35 BC, which is over six thousand years ago. Tops were made from different kinds of material, like fruits, nuts and seeds, and they have been found throughout the world. However, tops have not only been used as toys; in some cultures, they were used for gambling, or even for fortune telling.

Making and playing with gigs became a popular hobby in post-emancipation Jamaica, when children were no longer forced to work. These handmade gigs were often made by children, and were carved ideally from local hardwoods such as bulletwood and lignum vitae, but the best available substitute did equally well.

Wooden gigs are made by whittling down blockwood with a chisel, knife or a lathe, shaping it into a rounded cone. A nail is then driven in at the tip with its point sticking out. Carpenters also made gigs, capitalising on wood scraps by making them for sale. Carpenters used a lathe (a machine that rounds or 'turns' blockwood), sometimes turning several gigs at a time from a single length. Horace Prince recalls making and playing with gigs as a young boy.

They worked by first setting about an inch of a two-foot cord on the gig, catching it as the remainder was wrapped tightly around it, leaving just enough cord to slip a knot around a finger. With a sudden jerk of the arm the gig was sent flying, 'wipped' down spinning at great speed. The best players competed by trying to slap the opponents gig as it spun, aiming also to crack it.

- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum of Jamaica - Institute of Jamaica.