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How the rules of long-lost board games take us inside ancient minds

In ancient Egypt, royals and subjects alike played a board game called Senet Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

How the rules of long-lost board games take us inside ancient minds

In ancient Egypt, royals and subjects alike played a board game called Senet

Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

A FEW years ago, while excavating the 5000-year-old burial mound of Basur Hoyuk in south-east Turkey, archaeologists unearthed a collection of 49 tiny stone figures: pigs, dogs, pyramids and pillars, all elaborately carved and painted. They look a lot like pieces from a board game, and three years on the researchers who found them are still trying to figure out how to play.

That might turn out to be a quixotic quest. Only in a few cases have we been able to reconstruct the rules of ancient board games, giving us insights into the lives of people who played them. We do know that humans have been shuffling pieces around boards for thousands of years, perhaps even from the dawn of civilisation. So what is it about board games that has made them a constant companion? And what does that tell us about ourselves?

Ancient board games

One reason the pieces from Basur Hoyuk remain a mystery is that no board has been discovered. We know more about Senet, played by the Egyptians as early as 5500 years ago, thanks to boards excavated from various tombs – including Tutankhamun’s – and religious texts that refer indirectly to the game. It consisted of 30 squares arranged in three rows, over which two players, using casting sticks as dice, raced to get their pieces to the end. In doing so, they appear to have used blocking strategies reminiscent of backgammon.

According to Peter Piccione at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, Senet reveals how ancient Egyptians thought about the afterlife. Over its 3000-year reign as Egypt’s favourite game, Senet became increasingly bound up with religion. On later boards each square represented different stages on the journey into the afterlife, suggesting the game was a ritual activity, perhaps performed by one person, as well as a recreational one played by two. And Piccione argues that the way Senet was played shows that Egyptians felt they could influence the judgement of their souls when they were still alive.

The rules for the Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, are now pretty well established. A favourite of the Mesopotamians as early as 4500 years ago, it was rediscovered in the 1920s with the excavation of boards in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, a Sumerian city-state in what is now southern Iraq. But it wasn’t until 1979 that anyone had a clue about how to play.

That was the year Irving Finkel – an expert in the ancient Mesopotamian language of cuneiform – took up a post at the British Museum in London. When he dived into the museum’s collection of stone tablets, one stood out. Its unusual combination of writing and a grid-like diagram had everyone puzzled, until Finkel realised it contained an explicit set of rules for the Royal Game of Ur – “by far the oldest set of rules for a game,” he says.

In the game, there are spots that grant you another turn but also hazardous spaces. There is no obvious religious meaning, though we have found boards in the shape of an animal liver, which suggest a connection with hepatoscopy, or divination through examination of the liver. Indeed, Finkel says it is hard to know what the game says about ancient Mesopotamians. The only thing we know for sure is that it spread widely: boards have been dug up in Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus and Crete.

Social climbers

The context in which ancient board games were played can also be revealing. Walter Crist at Arizona State University in Phoenix has studied ancient board games discovered in Cyprus. Here, the boards for Senet and a game called Mehen were carved into stone or laid down as heavy slabs.

To work out what purpose they played in society, Crist plotted the locations and dates of the boards and found that the places where games were played changed over time. As ancient Cypriot society slowly moved from an egalitarian state to one with social hierarchies, its people went from playing in small enclosed spaces to competing in open public areas, often where feasts would have occurred.

Boards for Senet (above) and the Royal game of Ur (below) have turned up in tombs

Egyptian National Museum, Cairo, Egypt/Bridgeman Images

Crist thinks that this shift reflects a new role for board games in which people tried to gain prestige by using them to interact with those above them in the social order, or even visitors from far-flung lands. “If you have two groups of people who want to interact but don’t even speak each other’s language, board games are a very good way of making that happen,” says Alex de Voogt at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who worked with Crist on the Cyprus study.

In that sense, board games probably served a similar purpose to feasting: they got people who would otherwise not interact to sit at a table together. “You get very close to somebody, just across a board,” says Crist. What’s more, if we assume they were fun, ancient board games probably gave people a chance to escape everyday cultural rules and act in ways that were not otherwise socially acceptable.

Risma Archivo/Alamy Stock Photo

Games may have been greasing the wheels of social interaction since civilisation took root in the Neolithic. Archaeologists have identified carved stone slabs in Jordan from around 7000 BC as primitive forms of a counting game called mancala, although not everyone is convinced. One recent study suggested that the rows of circular depressions in question may have been for making fire. But Crist is in no doubt. “I’m certain that games go back much earlier than we have evidence for,” he says. Even today people play games on boards scratched into the dirt, leaving no trace.

What, then, is so special about board games? Unlike pots, flints or wheels, they have no practical function, so what explains their enduring appeal? Crist thinks it has to do with our uniquely human ability to engage with one another in shared attention of something. Unlike most other species, when we interact with that thing, we have the mental capacity to realise the other person is interacting as well and yet has different goals and viewpoints. “Board games offer a tool for focusing this attention,” says Crist.

Finkel has a similar theory. He thinks board games tap into a need to compete and test ourselves against others in a safe and abstract way. Then again, he says, “the simplest idea is that board games are a distraction from the mundane, a way to fill time”.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers. Sometimes, as with the carved stone pieces found in Turkey, it’s hard to know if they really were games or symbols of prestige. It’s even more difficult to say why ancient people played, says de Voogt. “But we speculate the hell out of it.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “When the die was cast”


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