The Survival, Origin and Mathematics of String Figures

"Museums and other institutions with string figure artefacts", "The British Museum A. C. Haddon String Figures", "The Origin of String Figures", "String Figures and Knot Theory", "21st-Century String Figures", "The Creation of New String Figures".

by Martin Probert

"the World's Most Widespread Game"
(James Hornell, Discovery, 1928)


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1) Museums and other institutions with string figure artefacts

Begun 1999. Last revised August 2010.

  1. Museums and artefacts. An inventory of over 1200 string figure artefacts in more than 20 museums worldwide. The inventory includes string figures mounted on card, string figures on film, string figure photographs, and recordings of string figure songs. Holding institutions include the British Museum, the Harvard University Peabody Museum, the Australian Museum, and many others.

"A wonderful project"
Archivist, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

"A great resource!"
Archivist, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

"A wonderful website"
Archivist, Australian Museum


2) The Torres Strait String Figures in the British Museum A. C. Haddon Collection

Probert, M. 2004. 'The Torres Strait String Figures in the British Museum A. C. Haddon Collection'. Journal of Museum Ethnography No. 16, pp. 140-156.

  1. Abstract



3) The Origin of String Figures

Posted 1999. Abstract revised August 2002.

In Part I we suggest a possible context for the discovery of string figures. In Parts II and III we propose that the most widely distributed string figures are those most capable of independent invention. This conclusion is derived through an analysis of the mechanical constructions of the collected figures. The theory is to be seen in contrast to the alternative hypothesis that these widely distributed figures have a common origin.

  1. How old are string figures?
  2. Where and how did string figure making originate?
  3. Why is Jacob’s Ladder so widely distributed?

"Looks at string figures from a whole new point of view and opens up a brand new field for exploration. A landmark paper..."
Associate Editor, Bulletin of the International String Figure Association



4) String Figures and Knot Theory
- mathematics of the unknot under tension

Posted February 2001. Last revised July 2007.

Many ethnographical string figures have come down to us only in the form of an ambiguous photograph in which, at the crossings, it is impossible to determine by eye which string lies over which. A knowledge of the set of all look-alikes ('similar-looking string figures') is a considerable aid in attempting to reconstruct such a figure. Part I shows how such a set may be determined mathematically (using the techniques of KNOT THEORY). Part III shows how members of the set of look-alikes may be obtained manipulatively. Several conjectures are made concerning this manipulative process on the set of all look-alikes.

Web Awards:

Featured in the Math Forum Internet News 19 March 2001
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KaBoL cool math site
Featured by the Canadian Mathematical Society: Cool Math Site 13 September 2002
Canadian Mathematical Society

5) 21st-Century String Figures

- sixteen string figures that continue the ancient tradition of portraying stories, objects and ideas from contemporary culture

  1. String Figure Maker's Garden with Young Loops Growing
  2. Double Crow’s Feet (double string figure)
  3. Alice in Wonderland (string figure sequence with moving figures)
  4. Jabberwock (string figure sequence with moving figure)
  5. Hamlet's Cloud (string figure sequence)
  6. Macbeth (3-second string figure)
  7. Symbol Cycle (cyclic string figure sequence)
  8. Eye of the Cyclops (string figure sequence)
  9. Persistent Vision (repeating string figure)
  10. Mitosis (Cell Division) (moving string figure)
  11. Spinal Vertebrae (iterative string figure)
  12. Cladogram (Evolutionary Tree) (iterative string figure)
  13. Dromedary - Bactrian Camel - Loch Ness Monster (iterative string figure)
  14. Millipede (iterative string figure)
  15. Evolving Star (iterative string figure)
  16. Footballer (moving string figure)

"Martin Probert is admired worldwide for his fanciful, fun-filled string figure creations."
Editor, String Figure Magazine

Other comments received:
"Enormously entertaining"
"So very original!"
"Outstanding"
"Beyond comment"
"Wonderfully ingenious"
"Your creations are fabulous!"
"What a glorious accomplishment"
"Spectacular"
"Magnificent"
"Ingenious and elegant ... are you sure you didn't grow up on a South Pacific Island?"

The above figures are taken from a large collection of original and unpublished string figures.
Any publisher interested in publishing the collection is invited to contact the author.


6) The Creation of New String Figures

Posted January 2005.
  1. Modified and preconceived string figures