Sorry, Mesopotamians didn’t invent the fidget spinner

For the last month, an interesting photo has been floating around Twitter. It captures a museum piece identified as a “spinning toy with animal heads” from Mesopotamia’s Isin-Larsa Period, produced sometime between 2000 and 1800 BCE. And with its tripartite shape and hole in the center, it looks a whole lot like a modern fidget spinner.

The comparison has been irresistible. Yesterday, Wired senior associate editor Arielle Pardes jokingly declared it “proof that there are no original ideas anymore” in a massively popular tweet. Back in June, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (home of the “spinning toy”) retweeted someone else making the comparison, and the university quipped that the institute is “always ahead of the curve.” If you were thinking this seemed a little too good to be true, though, you’d be right. In fact, this ancient “fidget spinner” probably isn’t a toy at all.

Oriental Institute Museum chief curator Jean Evans confirmed to The Verge that this item is located in the institute’s Mesopotamian gallery, where it’s described as a baked clay spinning toy. “It does look like a fidget spinner!” agrees Evans. “However, I don’t think either identification is correct.” Today, the museum thinks it’s actually the head of a mace — similar to the weapon piece shown below, which Evans attached for reference.

Evans says this artifact was found in the vicinity of a temple, which would support the mace interpretation, since they were considered “weapons of the gods” during that era. “We do have toys that survive from ancient Mesopotamia — baked clay rattles, whistles, animal figurines, and wheeled carts, to name a few,” she says. “But the fact that this ‘spinning toy’ would be a largely singular example of such a toy also suggests to me that it would be more accurate to think of it as a mace head.”

Oriental Institute mace head

Photo: The Oriental Institute Museum

So why, then, did the museum think it was a toy in the first place? “All I can say is that our ideas change over time,” says Evans. “When the ‘spinning toy’ was first published in 1932, the excavators recognized that the object was unique, and they speculated it might be rotated and used in ‘astrological divination.’” Even with this interpretation, that’s pretty far from our present-day fidget spinner.

Evans says I’m not the only one who’s reached out to the museum about this supposed ancestor of the fidget spinner, so at the very least, a previously unknown historical artifact has gotten some time in the spotlight. But its days as a “spinning toy” are numbered. Evans says the museum is updating all its labels in preparation for the Oriental Institute’s centennial celebration — and when that happens, it’s getting re-shelved in the mace-heads area.