Archeology & Games

Digging Up the Past

(Knucklebones, 2007)

It’s as natural as breathing   We humans love a good game.  Whether it’s chance, luck, skill or plain old passing the time of day, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as settling down to a game, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re of a solitary bent, or into the excitement of congregation.  Cards, chips, dice, boards, pegs and a little thrill seeking is all we need to tap the brain, shake it up and come out tops.

Mankind has always played games.  We can trace the need, the desire, back through the sands of time, through eons of history, and layers of civilization.  With brush and spade, archaeology has revealed a games-playing past that isn’t so very different from our present, and will probably be in perfect keeping with the future.

For many people, the science of archeology, the study of material remains of past human life and activities, is a grand and grandiose affair: Tutankhamen’s tomb, the walls of Jericho, the ruins of Pompeii. From excavations in Europe, we can study the rise of the Roman Empire, spreading north up through the British Isles.  In the Middle East, the cradle of civilization, we can pinpoint the beginnings of nearly all culture.  We can decode the religious past of the Ancient Americas, and even learn how the Egyptians strove to bring life to the afterworld.  Noble pursuits, all, but what about the more mundane?  Archaeology also allows us to unearth the rudiments of ancient “daily life,” and prove the validity of that age old maxim, all work and no play makes Jack (or Abdul or Cerberus) a dull boy.  So what of games, then?

Games, those we play and those we’ve discovered, are broken down into several distinct categories.  To narrow the focus a teeny bit, and look solely at board games, the act of playing – like the need for food, clothing and shelter – is universal to every society. Only two prehistoric cultures – the Eskimo and the Australian Aborigines – have yet to reward archaeology with the satisfactory discovery or excavation of any kind of board games.  But that’s not to say they didn’t play – they did.

Among every culture, games are divided into those of chance, those revolving around strategy, ones that work with a mean combination of chance and skill, those that involve a race to the finish, and those that are a mirror for daily life.  Look only as far as chess and checkers to see how the absolutely universal games of war are dealt out daily.

Nyout was a popular race/betting game in Korea, and denizens of Pompeii some 1000 years later played the ribald and saucy To Bed With Venus (a game based on the myth of that beauty).  Egyptians ramped it up with Senet (the grandfather of backgammon).  But there were also games that went much farther than satisfying the need to kick back and relax.

With bones or clay pieces cast onto a rudimentary board, or onto the ground itself, these games were an intricate part of a culture’s religious practice, with pieces and placement used to seek the future, to receive directions from the Gods, and to delve completely into the unknown, bridging the gap between mortal and divine.

From Egypt to Iran, games have appeared in tombs and texts.  One of the most common of these is the “Game of 58 Holes.”  With a board comprising 58 holes and 20 squares, and inlays of shields or dogs and jackals or palm trees (all variants on the theme), with pegs or beans and dice to navigate the board, it is believed that these games were an important part of early religious practice, the throw of the dice telling the player where to move the pegs, and thereby invoking the divine.  Today, we just call it cribbage.

The earliest known board game, complete with many pieces fashioned from ivory and clay, dates back some 4000 years BC.  As archeologists and anthropologists untangled the language of hieroglyphs and decoded the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, it seemed a reasonable assumption that games found in these ancient tombs were there, in part at least, to help the deceased’s soul pass through the world of the living to thrive in the afterworld.

The Book of the Dead itself is a game of sorts, an instruction manual whereby a “player” would undergo a myriad of trials, leaps and bounds through tasks and steps.  The completion of these would assure the entrance to the next world.  It’s a quick step then, to give the dead tools and games to help them on their way.

The Gods were omnipresent in daily life – omnipotent in their control of life and death, of good luck and bad.  The Aztec board game Patolli remains a classic example of this.  Dating back to approximately 250AD, relatively modern by ancient standards, the object of Patolli, like many contemporary games, was to advance your pieces – in this case, beans – through a cuneiform board and work them through the game, removing them completely from the board before your opponent.  The Aztecs would call on their God for help during a turn, asking for help and enforcing the ideas that chance and luck were nothing of the sort.  It was the Gods above who controlled the dice.

And things haven’t really changed since then.  Think of blowing on a pair of dice for double sixes in Monopoly, or three of a kind on Yahtzee.  We may not be calling on the Great Creator for luck in fixing the throw these days, but the impetus behind the gesture remains nonetheless.

Gods and religion aside, however, in many instances games were just that, for play.  One of the best known of these is Mancala – in actuality, an umbrella title bestowed upon a variety of similar (but not identical) games, that has been found all over the ancient world, and which is played on a board composed from rows of shallow depressions.  Into these, the players place counters – pebbles, stones, seeds etc – to be moved in accordance with the rules of the game.

While excavations at the temple of Karnak, in Egypt, discovered a Mancala game dating to at least 300 BC, a more startling, and even older version was found at the Temple at Kurna, on the West Bank of the Nile.  Archeologists were painstakingly unearthing the temple when they discovered something odd, out of place even, cut into the stone of the roof.  What they found could have been considered a game board – rows of depressions not of any use to the temple, or connected to the temple in any way.

Of course, archeology runs on guesswork and, knowing that Mancala boards were common in every culture, it was clearly obvious what they had found.  But the question remained, why was it here? Why had a board game been carved into the roof of one of the Nile’s greatest temples?  And not just one, but several of them.

Answer?  Easy!  Further excavation reveled that some of the boards were not complete; that they had been cut away as the stones were fitted into the roof during final construction.  The belief, then, was that, as stonemasons and builders were working on the temple, they cut the boards into the roof and used them for playing when they had breaks and moments to spare.  And that was nearly 1,400 BC.

Delving back even further to ancient Iraq, circa 3000BC, one would see people playing the Royal Game of Ur.  Discovered by Sir Leonard Wooley in the 1920s, Ur was, again, a board game based on divination.  With a gorgeous board adorned with lapis lazuli and limestone in geometric design, players of Ur would cast their pawns using dice to navigate the board.  In Cyprus, the game was known as Tau.

Archeology played a part, not only in the discovery of the Royal Game of Ur, but also further affirmation of the rules of play.  Curators at the British Museum, studying a much later (177BC), Babylonian tablet were astounded to find it comprised the general rules and regulations for the game.  And while it’s not complete, it does indeed show that these games passed through generation and era without much change.  The aesthetic of material and pieces would shift, but the general rules would not.  Still apparently a method of divination this late in the Common Era, it would be fascinating to reveal when this game, and others like it, shifted from being tools of priests and seekers to the innocent playthings they are today.

Leaving these mysteries behind and traveling to the Far East brings leads us to one of the most universal war-strategy games ever to be discovered.  Go, a game originating in China nearly 4000 years ago, before spreading to Japan and the rest of Asia, is a classic example of territory capture.  With 180 squares on a board, Go is easy to play but subtly difficult to master as each players’ territory on the board shifts as the game progresses.   Variations on the theme abound as Go became Ming Mang in Tibet, as well as Renju, and its own variation Ninuki Renju, in Japan.

A simple board, divided into squares, with pieced that advance and retreat.  This classic game of war is mirrored in the exhaustive variations the world over.  Chess, which dates back to 6th Century India, for example, is far more complex than its cousin, the later (1000AD) French game of Draughts.  Draughts, or checkers to us in North Americais, again, a subtle game of war stratagem.  By 1888 Draughts morphed into Reversi, and then into the Othello that we know and love today.

This list could go on for days, or pages,   From Northern Europe’s Fox and Geese to the Icelandic version Halatafl, and on to the classic European variants on Nine Men’s Morris – which originated in Egypt – digging up the play of the past has revealed that we are not so far removed from our ancestors.  Cultural divides (among games, anyway) aren’t a hindrance, but a bridge to the universal themes of war and strategy, wanting to know the future or just plain beating the pants off your opponent.  You could play the Game of 58 Holes with an ancient Egyptian today and, while the language barrier would be a bugbear, the joy of the game and the thrill of the race would bind you to the player across the board.  To dig up the past is indeed magnificent, but to play it is simply divine. (AH)

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