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TOMB RAIDERS AND THE LOST GAMES OF THE ANCIENTS
What board games reveal about our ancestors
“At last have made a wonderful discovery in Valley,” read the telegram. “A magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.”
A shiver of excitement shot through Lord Carnarvon’s body. This was it, the message he had been waiting years for. It had been so long since he agreed to fund archaeologist Howard Carter’s search that he had almost given up hope. After digesting the news, Lord Carnarvon ordered his servants to pack his cases. It was November 5, 1922, and Carter had just discovered the lost tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. What awaited Lord Carnarvon in the pale sands of the Valley of the Kings was the greatest haul of Egyptian artifacts ever found. Grave robbers had ransacked most of the royal tombs millennia before, but Tutankhamen’s burial chambers had barely been touched.
Carter and his team spent the next eight years clearing the site. For months workers scurried in and out of the tomb like ants, carrying relic after relic to the surface on canvas stretchers. Pots, shields, walking canes, stools, and fruit baskets mingled with beds of gilded wood, finely decorated chests, and thrones covered in precious stones and colored glass.
Among the treasures were four game boards. Some were plain and easily overlooked amid this archaeological bounty, but one stood out. The board sat on the upper surface of an oblong box that was held aloft by feline legs carved out of ebony. Paws at the bottom the legs rested on short golden drums attached to two sledge runners. The ivory veneer game board was divided into three rows of ten squares by a lattice of wooden strips, and at the front of the box was a drawer containing playing pieces and the short, flat throwing sticks that acted as the game’s dice.
While the board uncovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb was exceptionally ornate, Carter and his fellow Egyptologists had encountered this game before. They called it “the game of thirty squares,” and it had been turning up in digs ever since explorers began excavating the ruins of ancient Egypt around the dawn of the nineteenth century.
The earliest confirmed set uncovered by archaeologists dates back to 3000 BC, around the same time that ancient Egypt was founded, but fragments of what appear to be the game’s board have also been found in burial sites predating the kingdom’s creation by centuries—discoveries that suggested the game could be as old as writing itself. Equally impressive, other excavations had found that the game was still being played when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt more than three thousand years after those first boards were made.
The game’s presence in the ruins of ancient Egypt did not end with boards covered with centuries of dust. In many of their digs Egyptologists also discovered paintings of people playing the game on tomb walls. One such painting in Meir showed two players boasting to each other about how they would win the game. Some things, it seems, never change.
Even beyond the tombs the game lurked, its board scratched onto temple floors and carved into the wood of a quay on the River Nile. It also appeared in a satirical papyrus found in the ruins of Deir el-Medina, the ancient village that housed the workers who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In the comic book–like papyrus a randy lion defeats a gazelle at the game and claims the chance to bed the antelope as his prize.
But some finds hinted at something stranger, something darker, about this game. In the tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II, a painting showed the queen playing alone against an invisible opponent. The game also featured in the Book of the Dead created for the Theban scribe Ani around 1250 BC. In the book Ani and his wife are shown playing the game together as their bird-bodied spirits stand upon their sarcophagi.
Clearly there was something odd about this ancient game but for all the finds it remained shrouded in mystery. It resembled no game played in modern times, and for all their searching archaeologists found no record of the rules.
The tomb paintings revealed little. The side-on viewpoints of ancient Egyptian art obscured the position of pieces on the board making it impossible to decode the game from the images. The only secret the paintings gave away was that the ancient Egyptians called the game “senet,” which meant passing.
The variety of boards added to the confusion. Half had all blank squares but the rest had hieroglyphs on the five squares in the bottom right of the board. Some boards had even more hieroglyphs; on one set every space was decorated. The playing pieces varied too. Some were cones, others were shaped like chess pawns and cotton spools.
With the rules unknown, Egyptologists could only speculate about the nature of the game but it was challenging even to reach a verdict on which square was the starting space. Some believed the game began at the bottom-right corner because the hieroglyph seen in that space on some boards meant “door.” Others countered that this symbol also meant “exit” and argued that this space marked not the beginning but the end of the game.
The riddle of senet proved so vexing that in 1946 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York resorted to calling in George Parker, the founder of leading game manufacturer Parker Brothers. After examining the game and consulting with the museum’s Egyptologists, Parker proposed a set of rules that he later used for a commercial version of senet. But his ideas were no more convincing than anyone else’s. It was all just guesswork: modern ideas superimposed on ancient relics.
But as more and more senet boards piled up in museums across the world, a pattern emerged. The oldest boards tended to have blank squares but the most recent were decorated with religious hieroglyphs. Could it be that senet started as a game but later became an object of faith? The paintings of the game supported this idea. Early art showed the game as part of daily life but later artwork pictured senet in rituals and burials. Based on this and other evidence, the Egyptologist Peter Piccione proposed that over the centuries, senet morphed from game into a playable guide to the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians believed that when people died their souls would gather on the barge of the sun god Ra at sunset and then be taken on a nighttime journey through the underworld. Along the way the souls of sinners would be punished and destroyed while the spirits that remained on the barge at sunrise would unite with Ra and live forever. Piccione argued that the hieroglyphs on the later senet boards represented key moments on this journey of souls. The top-left corner square of these later boards bore the symbol of Thoth, the ibis-headed deity who announced the arrival of the newly deceased in the underworld, and so this was where the game began. In the middle row of the board were squares representing Osiris, the green-skinned judge of souls who would send the guilty to be obliterated in flames, and the House of Netting where the impure would be entangled in nets and tortured. The last five squares on the board included the House of Rejuvenation, the mummification workshop where bodies were prepared for burial and eternal life, and the Waters of Chaos in which sinful souls would drown. The final space represented Re-Horakhty, the god of the rising sun, and signified the moment when worthy souls would join Ra for eternity. In this interpretation senet was no mere game but a gateway to the spirit realm. Through ritualistic playing of the game the living could learn what awaited them in the afterlife, and if fiery annihilation was to be their fate they could then change their ways.
The evidence collected by Piccione also suggested that the game’s powers didn’t stop there. Senet also acted like a Bronze Age Ouija board that allowed people to connect with the dead. They could even play senet against their own souls, which would explain that strange painting of queen Nefertari playing solo.
Ancient Egyptians were not alone in using games for fortune-telling. In the same year that Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, another British archaeologist named Leonard Woolley began excavating the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq.
Founded circa 4000 BC, Ur became one of the richest and most populated cities of the ancient world. But its glory days did not last. Nomadic invaders sacked the city. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers that made Ur rich deposited enough silt to shift the coastline farther and farther from the city. War and drought followed, causing citizens to head for more fertile and secure lands. By the end of the sixth century the once great city of Ur was empty and slowly being buried by the shifting sands.
During his excavations of the city’s royal cemetery, Woolley uncovered a game that became known as “the royal game of Ur,” although other boards were later found across the Middle East. The game found in Ur had once belonged to a princess. Its squares were made from shell plaques inlaid into a wooden block and separated by intense blue strips of the precious gemstone lapis lazuli. Each square was decorated with intricate patterns: eyes, rosettes, and geometric motifs colored with red limestone and even more lapis lazuli. The board was distinctive, its shape reminiscent of an unevenly loaded dumbbell. The left side had an area four squares wide and three squares deep, which was connected in the middle by a two-square bridge to the right side, which measured two spaces wide and three spaces deep. Like senet, the royal game of Ur was a game of the dead. It had fallen out of favor hundreds of years before Woolley found the princess’s board, and its rules were unknown.
For decades it seemed as if the rules of the royal game of Ur would remain a mystery, too, but then in the early 1980s Irving Finkel of the British Museum decided to inspect a near-forgotten tablet lurking deep within the London museum’s vast archive of ancient relics.
The tablet’s journey to London began in 177 BC, when the Babylonian scribe Itti-Marduk-balatu took a slab of moist clay and a blunt reed and began etching words into it using cuneiform signs, the earliest known form of writing. At the time the city of Babylon was in serious decline. Citizens were fleeing on mass to escape the constant battles for control of the city that followed the death of Alexander the Great and, in the chaos, the scribe’s tablet ended up lost in the sand-covered ruins of what used to be the world’s largest city. The tablet remained buried there until a team of European archaeologists rescued it from the dirt in 1880 and sold it to the British Museum, which catalogued it and then filed it away. And there the tablet sat largely ignored for yet another century until Finkel, the museum’s cuneiform expert, finally got around to looking at it.
After taking it out of storage Finkel—a man who could easily pass for Professor Dumbledore thanks to his grand white beard and thin-framed spectacles—turned over the tablet and saw a pattern that resembled the distinctive board of the royal game of Ur. Curiosity aroused, he began translating the ancient script and, to his delight, discovered that it explained how to play the game.
The royal game of Ur was a race game. Players competed to get their pieces from the left side of the board to the exit on the right side by rolling dice made from sheep knucklebones. But as well as being an amusement, it also told players their fortune. Each of the board’s squares carried a vague prediction that wouldn’t seem out of place in a fortune cookie or newspaper astrologist’s column. “You will find a friend,” offered one space. Others promised that players would become “powerful like a lion” or “draw fine beer.”
Using games for spiritual guidance or to learn about the future might strike us as strange today, but it makes more sense when we understand that our brains have a serious aversion to the concept of randomness. Our brains look for patterns in the world around us and instinctively try to identify the causes behind those patterns. It’s an immensely useful ability. If we’re hiking in the woods and hear an unexpected rustle in the bushes we are more likely to imagine a bear caused it than a random gust of wind. That interpretation will almost always be wrong but mistaking a breeze for a bear is no big deal while mistaking a bear for the wind is a big deal. Our brains’ habit of formulating connections between events not only aids survival but also helps us develop theories and ideas we can put to the test, paving the way for new discoveries and insights.
Useful as this clearly is, our subconscious connecting of the dots also causes us to attribute nonexistent meaning to random events. Even today, some five hundred years since the mathematical theory of probability was developed, our minds still rebel against randomness. We might feel the dice are working against us during a game, imagine a secret conspiracy caused a tragic accident, or conclude a homeopathic remedy cured our cold.
The “Madden Curse” is a good example of how our minds impose meaning on randomness. Some American football fans believe there is a jinx on players who appear on the cover of the annual Madden NFL video game. After all many of the NFL stars who graced the game’s cover got injured or underperformed that season. Some believe the curse is real enough to even campaign against their favorite players being made Madden NFL cover stars.
Of course there is no connection. American football is a rough game and injuries are commonplace. Take any random group of NFL players and you will probably find a good chunk of them were injured or performed below par in any given season, regardless of whether they appeared on the cover of Madden NFL that year. But because of the way our minds work, people imagine a cause-and-effect relationship, and every time a Madden NFL cover star gets hurt it reinforces the belief in the curse.
So if we are still creating bogus connections about unrelated events today it shouldn’t be surprising that ancient people believed there was more to the results of their dice rolls and stick throws than mere chance. Instead of seeing randomness, people saw the invisible hand of the spiritual realm. Landing on the Waters of Chaos in senet was no random event but a message from a god, a ghost, or even your own soul.
Yet, for all the mysticism surrounding them, neither senet nor the royal game of Ur endured. In the case of senet, religion was probably its undoing. Under the Romans the Egyptians converted to Christianity and so the game was cast aside like the old gods. The fate of the royal game of Ur is fuzzier. Some believe it evolved into backgammon. An alternative theory is that early forms of backgammon drew players away from the royal game of Ur until it was forgotten. Or at least until everyone thought it had been forgotten.
For while the royal game of Ur died out in the Middle East, it lingered on unnoticed in the southern Indian city of Kochi. Sometime before the game died out in the Middle East, a group of Jewish merchants left the region and began an epic five-thousand-mile journey that eventually ended with them settling in Kochi. One of the things those adventurous traders took on their travels was the royal game of Ur, and their descendants were still playing a recognizable version of it when they began migrating to Israel after the Second World War, many hundreds of years after people stopped playing it in the Middle East.
The royal game of Ur is not the only board game that allows us to trace the footsteps of our ancestors and few games do this better than the mancala games of Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia. Although widespread around the world, mancala games are less well known in Western countries, where they are sometimes portrayed as a single game, even though that’s like calling playing cards a game. There are hundreds of different mancala games but what they all have in common is that they are two-player games in which people move playing pieces around a board of pit-like holes.
The most widespread mancala game is oware, which is also known as awari, awélé, and warri, among many other names. Oware boards consist of two rows of six pits. Each player owns the row nearest to them. The game starts with each pit filled with four counters or “seeds” that traditionally consisted of shells, nuts, or small pebbles. The aim is to capture the majority of these seeds. On his turn, each player chooses a hole on his side of the board, scoops up all the seeds inside, and then moves counterclockwise around the board, dropping one seed into each hole until his hand is empty. This process is known as “sowing.” If the last seed sowed brings the number of seeds in a rival’s hole to two or three, the player captures, or “harvests,” all the seeds in that hole. And if the hole he sowed before it also has two or three seeds, he gets to harvest those seeds too, a process that continues until the player reaches the end of his opponents’ row or encounters a hole that does not contain two or three seeds. The key to success is to sow seeds so that you harvest as many seeds as possible while limiting your opponent’s ability to claim seeds from your side of the board.
Oware is straightforward but other mancala games are notoriously complex. One of these headache-inducing mancala games is bao, which is mainly played in East Africa. Bao’s board features four rows of eight pits and comes with an intimidating list of rules that dictate the various ways to win, how the direction of sowing changes depending on the stage of the game, and how harvested seeds are to be redistributed on the board. Under certain conditions players must start to sow again from the hole they dropped their last seed into and, in theory, this chain reaction of sowing can be never ending.
In between the simplicity of oware and the complexity of bao are hundreds of strains of mancala from the three-row boards of Ethiopia and Eritrea to the twenty-four-hole version played by Roma Gypsies in Transylvania. And the distribution of these variants provides a breadcrumb trail of human migration and communication over the centuries.
The starkest evidence of this can be seen in how mancala games spread along slave trade routes. Oware, for example, came with the slaves taken from West Africa to the Caribbean, where they re-created the game’s board in the soil. Much the same happened in East Africa under Omani rule in the seventeenth century. The slaves taken by the Omanis from Mozambique to Muscat brought with them a four-rowed mancala called njomba that they played in their homelands. Njomba spread from the slaves to the Omanis, who call it hawalis and still play it today. The Omanis also sold slaves to French colonists in the Seychelles, which led to njomba taking root there under the name “makonn.”
But the bread-crumb trail of mancala games is a patchy one. People often played mancala games on makeshift boards scooped out of the earth or on wooden boards that rotted away. The generic nature of the seeds used in the game also makes it difficult to accurately trace the game’s past.
The slippery archaeological record of the mancala games leaves much unanswered. We don’t know if Africa or the Middle East was the birthplace of mancala games, or when the first games originated: we can only narrow it down to sometime between 3000 and 1000 BC. Nor do we know how the evolutionary tree of mancala games fits together. It could be that simpler games like oware came first and then grew into more complex creations like bao, but for all we know mancala games could have been dumbed down over time.
But there is one, much more recent board game whose evolution and spread around the world is far better documented: A game still being played today. A game molded by centuries of migration, war, trade, technological development, and cultural change. And that game is chess.
Copyright © 2017 by Tristan Donovan