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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » For the record » » A Hypothetical Study of the Origins of the Cups and Balls (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Bill Palmer
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For many years, I have been fascinated by the history of the cups and balls. However, the origins of the cups and balls, as simple and as culturally universal as the trick seems to be, is clouded in mystery.

Ron Wohl, who is one of the acknowledged masters of the three shell game, remarked to me at a gathering of magic collectors a few years ago that most of us think of magic as some kind of art that is almost of divine origins, whereas in reality its origins are mainly in the scams and deceits of the grifter and gambler. This is especially true of sleight of hand. The cups and balls very likely started as a gambling game similar to the shell game.

The earliest literary references to the cups and balls are in letters by Roman authors, specifically Seneca the younger (ca. 45 C.E.) and Alciphron of Athens, (ca. 200 - 300 C.E.). The Romans called the people who performed the cups and balls "acetabularii" or vinegar cup workers, because they used small cups, similar to those used to hold vinegar at the dinner table.

I looked extensively for a drawing or photo of a vinegar cup, and finally found a drawing. A friend of mine, Tom Crecelius, made me a set of these cups, and I began to learn about the possibilities they had.

One of the first things I learned was that the small size of this kind of cup lent itself quite well to manipulations we currently consider part of the three shell game. They were also not suitable for nesting. Finally, being made of pottery, they were not really suitable for things like nesting or the cup through cup move.

However, it would have been quite easy to perform fairly simple cup and ball routines or shell game routines with them. In fact, moving a cup forward caused the pebble or ball to pop right out the back, just like the pea in the shell game.

Nevertheless, it bothered me that the earliest mention of the cups and balls was within the past 2000 years.

(As I have mentioned on the cups and balls museum web site, the painting on the wall of Tomb 15 at Beni Hasan was fairly obviously not a cups and balls routine. Recently, I discovered that the originator of this misinterpretation was probably Champollion or Rossellini, who were the among the first to document the tomb, about 1824. Other archaeologists simply parrotted what Champollion and Rossellini had written. In context, the painting is probably a pair of bakers molding bread.)

We know that gambling goes back to the beginnings of the Neolithic revolution. i.e. from the earliest years of people setting down roots and building permanent settlements in arable areas. Hunter-gatherers had little time to gamble, and they didn't carry a lot of extra baggage with them when they moved about the countryside. On the other hand, when primitive man began to build permanent settlements and till the soil, they didn't spend as much time travelling, and they also began to hold markets, in order to sell or trade their excess production and to purchase or barter for supplies. This may be one of the keys to the development of the cups and balls.

Markets supply a venue for performers and/or gamblers. Also, if someone lived more than half a day's journey from such an area, there would, almost of necessity, be pubs and inns. Again, these would be fertile areas for the grifter and gambler.

Archaeologists have identified primitive "dice", such as "knucklebones," which have been found in many Neolithic settlements. They have also identified primitive board games of various types. Why do they not have any evidence of people performing with cups and balls?

Perhaps it is because archaeologists aren't looking for gambling apparatus.

In one of my early articles on the history of the cups and balls, I stated that if an archaeologist found three cups of similar size and appearance, some small, round pebbles and a leather bag, he would probably not think of a conjurer or a grifter with a set of cups and balls. He would be more likely to think of a person who had some tableware.

That is part of the mystique of the cups and balls. The cups are everyday objects. The balls are also everyday objects. Yet the conjurer apparently causes these small balls to move from one cup to another without any apparent effort.

So, what would the early conjurer or grifter have worked with? I believe that pottery or stone vessels would make more sense than anything else, although wooden vessels might also be a possibility. However, wooden cups don't hold up well over the millenia.

Most archaeologists agree that the earliest permanent settlements sprang up around an area that crosses from the Western Asian subcontinent, i.e., the Indus Valley, around through the area just north of the Persian Gulf to the Nile Valley. This western part of this area is often referred to as the Fertile Crescent. Sometime around 9000 BCE, the hunter-gatherers that populated this area settled down and started cultivating the soil. They formed city-states.

Shortly after that (perhaps even at the same time), they began to make pottery.

The earliest pottery the archaeologists have on record is fairly primitive, from an area near present day Hungary. It dates back to about 5000 BCE. An example of a reproduction of such a pottery item is in the Cups and Balls Museum.

After that, we see low, cylindrical styles of pottery and small, round bowls that would have been very well-suited to the cups and balls. We also see a different style, a bell-like style, that surfaces in Europe. This latter style is called the Bell Beaker style.

Amazingly, both of these latter styles make their appearance roughly 3000 - 2500 BCE, although in areas that are separated by a great distance.

There is another culture that emerged about this same time, around the western part of Asia. This is the BMAC culture (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex). They were located in present day Turkmenistan, basically along the Oxus river. Archaeological digs in this area have found items as old as 2500 or so B.C.E. They made much of their tableware from stone, such as alabaster, but they also knew how to make pottery. (These are the Bactrians.)

So, why have I become interested in these areas recently?

A couple of months ago, a fellow in the DFW area alerted me to a small, Roman cup that was for sale on an antiquities web site. I looked at it, and discovered that it did not look anything like the acetabula I'd had made. It had a much different design. After a bit of soul-searching, I purchased it, and discovered that although it had been classified as a "patella cup," it would qualify as an acetabulum, partially because of its size.

I found other cups, much older ones at other web sites, and soon I had acquired 10 ancient cups. These are all viewable on the cups and balls museum web site. http://69.89.31.132/~cupsandb/museum/ancientcups.htm

I have NO evidence whatsoever that any of these particular cups were actually ever used for the cups and balls or the shell game. However, their size and shape lead me to believe that there may have been such a game played with similar cups in these old Neolithic towns.

Posted: Oct 31, 2010 12:58am
I have now incorporated this into the Standard Cups section of the Cups and Balls museum. Now the article includes a map of the Ancient World, showing key areas, as well as photographs of all of the cups in question.
"The Swatter"

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My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Steve Burton
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Excellent research, Bill! The acetabula cups are particularly interesting as we know for certain they were used in the performance of the effect. It would seem that the stacking of the cups is quite important as far as the history of the effect is concerned. This would be the one factor that denotes an evolution of the routine away from a gambling game as evidenced of the stacking procedures in early descriptions such as HP Jr.
Bill Palmer
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I tend to agree with you on this, Steve. There is a contemporary routine, though, in which stacking does not take a part. This is the Indian style routine.

During the last couple of years, I have spent quite a bit of time in museums all over Europe. Cups that are "nestable" or "stackable," just in terms of cups used for drinking, seem to be concurrent with the use of spun metals or metals that were formed over mandrels.

I saw some wonderful brass cups in the National Museum of Hungary in Budapest that looked very much like Joe Porper cups, except that they had a shorter skirt and were partially covered with leather. Of course, earlier cups do exist. The tapered ones seem to run toward metal and/or glass, although the occasionlal pottery example does surface.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Jacques
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Very interesting.

I’m no expert on the cups requirements. What would be needed for cups to be considered as stackable? I guess certain shapes and material. Does this little belly around the middle of the cups necessary?

I would think that the stacking of cups would be a later improvement in the cups & balls techniques, an added dimension. In Peter Bruegel “The fall of the magician” (1564), we can see two sets of stacked cups (see image). This may be the earliest known reference to stacked cups. Their shapes are quite simple. Would you consider these as stackable?

Click here to view attached image.
Steve Burton
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I've always loved that Bruegel depiction of the cups and balls! He looks so sneaky...

What I found fascinating about Bill's research was the stackability of the acetabula cups was due, not to a lip or ridge, but to a set of handles. I mistakenly always thought the vessels described by Alciphron were just plain cups but Mr. Palmer's research and historical recreation of the acetabula clearly shows how they could stack with the handles. I believe the translation I read of Alciphron's account described the vessels as "dishes" but the fact that early workers in Greece were described as "acetabularii" means they must have favored those "vinegar dishes" over others.

I know there has been quite a bit of debate over when the first record of a conjurer's performance appeared in print. In my opinion, putting Dedi and Hero aside, I always thought it was Alciphron's description of the sleight of hand performance he observed nearly two thousand years ago. Here is an account of a real conjurer doing real close-up magic and doing it expertly. And it proves that while the cups and balls may not be the earliest magic routine it was certainly one of the first.

Now I'm wondering what moves the acetabularii did with those handles. For one thing you could pick up a cup with a pinched finger and thumb concealing a ball in low finger palm position.
Bill Palmer
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From the research I have done so far, and it is definitely in its beginning stages, the acetabula were of a particular size, rather than just one shape. Basically, the drawing that I used as a model for these showed only one possibility.

Consider this. If someone says "coffee cup," you have a range of shapes to draw from. The same is true of the acetabulum. I am beginning to believe that the "handles" on the aceatbula woould not have helped at all. You really can't stack these cups. They won't fit into one another. The material is really too thick for the shape to allow it.

But you could stack the glass acetabulum with no difficulty. These were molded and were made of a thinner material. But you would need to be careful in handling them, because they are not very sturdy.

Pottery cups, unless twice fired, are going to be rather frangible.

Metal cups would be less of a problem.

The cups shown in the Breughel engraving do not have shoulder beads. When working with cups without shoulder beads, you have to be careful not to jam them together. The shoulder bead appears in graphics around 1732, and is mentioned in literature in the late 18th century. They show up first in literature in Ozanam.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Tom Fenton
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What a wonderful thread this is.
I only wish I knew some of the things you fellows are talking about so I could contribute to it.
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Clay Shevlin
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Quote:
On 2010-10-27 14:36, Bill Palmer wrote: ... The cups and balls very likely started as a gambling game similar to the shell game. ...

Bill, re this potential connection, I think you're wise to be circumspect as a historian in the absence of stronger evidence. That said, if I had to bet (we are talking about gambling, right? Smile ), I'd bet that the cups and balls and thimble-rigging are inextricably linked through ancient history.

Have a look at my series of Magicol articles on the conjuring-related prosecutions at the Old Bailey in London. Here's an example of the kind of thing you may find of interest:

Quote:
The manner in which John Cobidge robbed a small sum of money from two men on a dark February night was rather unoriginal, but the description of his “profession” is worthy of note. The account of Cobidge’s March 1, 1721 trial for highway robbery and theft with violence states that “he hath been a Thimble-man, or Cups and Balls Man all his Life.” While the sleights used may have been very similar, the aims of the thimble-man (or thimble-rigger) and the cups and balls performer were very different. A thimble-man ostensibly offered a game of chance in which the spectator who correctly guessed under which of the three (or sometimes four) cups the ball was located would win his wager. But of course the spectator would almost never win due to the trickery of the thimble-man. As we shall see in our discussion below, most of the references to the “cups and balls” and their operators in the Old Bailey records appear to describe the work of thimble-men. But it does not seem a stretch of the imagination to consider that many of these thimble-men also used the same apparatus to present magical entertainment, a strategy which not only made efficient use of equipment, but also – perhaps more importantly – allowed seamless transitions between licit and illicit activity.
Bill Palmer
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I will definitely take a look at these articles. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
edh
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Bill, two questions.

First, I have not had the pleasure of visiting you museum. Are the cups in the museum all supposedly used in a Cups & Balls capacity? If so, how would you know?

Second, I would like to visit the museum. Would it be possible to get a password or link to the museum?

Thanks
Magic is a vanishing art.
Bill Palmer
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For a partial answer to your first question -- my first post states:
Quote:
I have NO evidence whatsoever that any of these particular cups* were actually ever used for the cups and balls or the shell game. However, their size and shape lead me to believe that there may have been such a game played with similar cups in these old Neolithic towns.

*(referring to the ten sets of ancient cups and the reproductions thereof that are in my museum.)

This said, the bulk of the sets of cups on the museum were manufactured specifically for the cups and balls OR converted by a dealer or some other person to be suitable for the routine.

If you want a username and password to enter the museum, you MUST follow the instructions on the first page of the cups and balls museum http://www.cupsandballsmuseum.com . The third paragraph on the page tells you how to get a password. I need the e-mail to keep track of who has what password.

Posted: Nov 24, 2010 11:27am
Thanks very much to Clay for sending me the files in question.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Jonathan Townsend
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Bill, a different avenue have haunted some of my map for a while on this*

As best I recall from an anthropology course, long ago some folks used clay balls containing markers which had been pressed into the clay while wet as bills of lading - bullae. This leads pretty directly to a thinking of "what's inside" and "getting something inside" etc as cultural referents. While not proper historical thinking, it occurs that once one has a model for that in everyday economics, like coins, the basic tricks of "getting a chosen one inside" etc would follow. While that's more hermeneutics than proper history, it suggests that one might find such switching and lighter trickery as part of the environment.

Jon

*digression - I agree with Clay that the "three shell" schema serves as a sensible shadow for the innocent play with a wand.
...to all the coins I've dropped here
Bill Palmer
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I was unfamiliar with bullae by name; however, a quick search not only reminded me of what they were, they gave me an interesting glance at the origin of a certain phrase. I'll get to that in a moment.

For those who were not completely clear as to how bullae were used, there were two basic forms of them. One was a seal that was either round or flat that was used on a cord in order to keep the contents of a bag or a box to from being disturbed without some indication that a disturbance had taken place. These are still in use today. The lead seals that are placed on some of the electric meters and on various shipments of valuable goods are examples of this.

There are also bullae (singular bulla that are attached to a document by means of a cord or a ribbon. Papal documents had a lead seal of this type. According to some sources, this gave rise to the term "Papal bull" which referred to a Papal document that had the official seal of the Pope attached to it by means of a cord or ribbon. The Latin word bulla means bubble. Perhaps this refers to the fragile nature of the seal.

I don't know how much information could be placed on one of these seals when it was used to protect the contents of a bag or a box.

I don't know how this would be applicable to the cups and balls or the shell game, but I would have to think about it a bit.

Thanks for some good food for thought, Jonathan.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Jonathan Townsend
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You're welcome Bill.
The usage I'm looking at is the 'bubble', the hollow clay ball that contains the very markers which were earlier impressed onto the surface to be used as the outside to indicate the contents.
...to all the coins I've dropped here
Bill Palmer
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I didn't find any reference to that at all. However, I did find several references to pouches and other amulets that contained various kinds of objects.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
conjurormatt
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I'm resurrecting a slightly aged topic, but I thought I could help clear some things up. What Jonathan is referring to is often called Bulla-envelopes, or simply clay envelopes. They come into play during the early years of Sumerian culture. Initially, they were used to contain an accurate count of payments made (often in the trade of goods) by placing a number of small tokens inside which matched the number of the item given in trade (so, if you were giving 6 sheep, you placed six tokens in the envelope) The clay was then sealed over, and was a physical receipt of the transaction. Over time, this practiced evolved into written tablets, which were sometimes still wrapped in a clay envelope.

While I can understand Jonathan's train of thought, I find it unlikely that these bulla had any real bearing on the cups and balls game. To see some pictures of these envelopes, you can go here: http://www.earth-history.com/Sumer/Clay-tablets.htm (note, I found this site through a google search for clay envelopes; the pictures are nice, but I do not guarantee accurate information).

From your "local" Archaeologist,
Matt M.

P.S. the pictures I'm talking about are roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of the way down the page.
Matthew Martin
"Merely to be acquainted with the basic secret of a card trick, in no way qualifies you to perform it. Few people realize that even a simple trick in the hands of a capable performer can become a minor miracle."
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Bill Palmer
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Thanks very much for the link to this site.
"The Swatter"

Founder of CODBAMMC

My Chickasaw name is "Throws Money at Cups."

www.cupsandballsmuseum.com
Lawrence O
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Stepping backwards in this noble debate (sorry), I wish to remind that several middle age accounts link C&Bs workers to teeth pulling and any other way to gather crowds for accomplices to cut the pursse of innocent by standers. The fact that until this day pickpocketting is still included in the "magical" art tends to give ground to Bill's earlier comments regarding the swindle roots of the game. It seems to me however that the swindle was more in assembling the crowds to rob them than in the betting itself as in the three card monte with the accomplices of the "tosser". As such it's more a theft method than a swindle by pure skill. Now this is not an information but rather an opinion even if it's supported both by the experience and by the fact that demonstrations of cheating and pickpocketting ate doing more arm than good to our art: the performers are craving for admiration over their skill without realizing that their quest casts as dark shadow on our art. Is the fact that magic may find roots in crooked gambling and swindles implies that we should keep its image as such? Don't we know better.

Now I'm still interested, without forming illusions, about the history of C&Bs and, at some point didn't shy away from supplying Bill with whatever information I could come across for him to incorporate into his advanced search.

So sorry for thsi side step.
Magic is the art of proving impossible things in parallel dimensions that can't be reached
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