Unearthed Board Games Shed Light on Ancient Holy Land Trivial Pursuits

A Jerusalem 'artifactologist,' who directs a national storage facility that holds more than a million archaeological items, says games offer insight into human life throughout the ages.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A few years ago, a striking street from the Roman period was discovered in the back part of the Western Wall Square. This eastern cardo area features a wide lane, sidewalks, and entryways for stores. Archaeologists, led by Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah from the Israel Antiquities Authority, discovered an inscription in one of the sidewalk areas − the engraving stretches across two quadrants, each divided into squares, and has a large X in its center.

In another area, an engraving features a rectangle divided into 42 squares. An intensive search uncovered another six inscriptions of various types; and searches in other parts of Jerusalem’s Old City uncovered another 21 engravings − in the Damascus Gate square, around the Dung Gate, at the Jewish quarter’s cardo, and elsewhere. Each is actually a public game-board, dating from the Roman period, similar to public chessboards that can sometimes be found in public parks in Europe. Jerusalem in Roman times − Aelia Capitolina − is not unusual in this respect. Archaeologist Dr. Michael Saban, who investigates ancient games artifacts, alludes to hundreds of game boards of different types, from all historical periods. The oldest such board dates to the 7th century B.C.E., 9,000 years ago.

Try it yourself: instructions for 3 ancient games

Archaeology established that residents of this country started to play games immediately after they built the land’s first settlements; and, apparently, hunter-gatherers were also games players. A circumstance in which two seated game players sit on opposite sides of a board with dozens of spectators looking on, in a competition that is a social event and perhaps also a business contest, characterizes human society in this country no less than familiar situations of wars, conquests and catastrophes.

“A game represents an integral part of human life,” says Saban. “It is what enables conversation between people.”

Saban, who directs the Antiquities Authority’s artifacts storage facility, is in charge of a huge industrial operation. The storehouse, whose exact location is a type of state secret, holds more than a million archaeological items discovered in excavations throughout the country. The artifacts range from carved flint tens of thousands of years old to huge iron anchors dating from the Crusader period, and from Second Temple period ossuaries ‏(bone depositories‏) to clay pipes from the Ottoman era.

Out of all these items, Saban − who describes himself as an “artifactologist” − cultivated a special interest in the ancient game equivalents of the likes of Monopoly, backgammon, checkers and chess. In an article ‏(“Ancient Board Games in the Land of Israel”‏) published recently in the Qadmoniot journal ‏(vol. 45 no. 144‏), he summarizes 20 years of research of game boards discovered in Eretz Israel.

Saban started his research of ancient games during excavations at Tel Arad, directed by Prof. Ruth Amiran. This excavation of ancient Arad yielded a bountiful collection of game boards from the Bronze Age, 4,500 years ago. Some 55 boards, or fragments of game boards, were uncovered at the ancient Canaanite city. The expansive but precise character of the excavation conducted at the site yielded these ample finds, Saban believes.

Saban claims that relics of games can be found at virtually every archaeological site in the country, or around the world. Generally, crude engravings were made on stone, or simple, shallow holes were drilled on surfaces. Sometimes, excavators uncover more sophisticated game boards, which were used by persons of higher status and were crafted by artisans. The most famous example is the carved Senet game board found alongside the grave of the pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, in Egypt.

An ornate ivory game board from the Bronze Age was found at Tel Megiddo in the north; it was used for a game called “Dogs and Jackals.” Archaeologists were also able to find stone dice and other small items used for this game.

Saban divides the board games into four types:

1. Position games, akin to tic-tac-toe. These are games in which a player tries to position his pieces in a winning position over his opponent’s pieces;

2. Race games, as in the ancient Egyptian Senet game, or backgammon, in which a player tries to advance all of his pieces to a defined finish line;

3. War games, such as chess or checkers

4. Forms of Mancala games − a group of logic games originating in Africa, and which spread around the world together with the slave trade. The game hones tactics of moving seeds into holes.

The common denominator linking these games is the gap between the primitive instruments used for playing, and the sophisticated gamesmanship required for victory. In most cases, players needed no more than half a minute to set up the game, by digging a few holes in the sand and collecting a few small stones or twigs that could be used as dice. Some of the games put a premium on luck, but even in these cases the more experienced player who followed a better strategy was more likely to win.

Intersection where games meet

Apart from the oldest games, whose names and rules have long since disappeared, Saban and other researchers have been able to recreate rules and features of ancient games. Senet is the oldest game whose rules are known conclusively to Saban. It was clearly the national pastime of ancient Egypt. The game also had a spiritual component because the last five squares on the board represented the soul’s journey after death, and the game’s conclusion symbolized the longed-for union between the deceased person’s soul and the god, Ra. As years passed the game lost its religious character, but it was never forgotten in the hearts of the region’s residents. Today, Bedouin in the Sinai and Negev deserts still play the game, albeit under the name Tab.

Eretz Israel was a crossroads where two games enjoyed by two regional empires intersected: the Egyptian Senet and a royal game, of the race game variety mentioned above, which originated in Mesopotamia. Proof of this game-playing cross-fertilization is furnished by two-sided boards: Senet can be found on one side of such boards, and the royal game is on the other. Such double-sided boards, dating to the Bronze Age ‏(3,600 years ago‏), have been uncovered in this country − for instance, at Tel Hazor and Beit Shemesh. In the case of the latter board, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University even found the name of the game’s owner, Hanan, engraved on it.

The engraved boards from the Roman period discovered in Jerusalem are a version of a game that came to be known as Nine Men’s Morris. This is a sophisticated positioning game, whose most primitive version is Tic-Tac-Toe. The game was popular in the Roman Empire, and remained a favorite in Europe during the Middle Ages. Centuries after soldiers from the Roman Legion played on the boards near the Western Wall, the game returned to Eretz Israel with the Crusaders; and boards engraved for the game by Crusader knights can be found at Atlit and Kochav Hayarden.

Game-playing in ancient times was so widespread that artifacts researched by Saban constitute just a fraction of the phenomenon, and most game artifacts have been lost. “Games are an integral part of being human,” Saban says. “Were you to have wandered around Aelia Capitolina, you would have seen hundreds of such game boards on streets, on sidewalks leading to temples, alongside wells; two people would play each game, with dozens of spectators looking on. It was a kind of encounter. People spoke, made business deals. A game was only for adults − children weren’t involved in these [ancient] eras. Today, adults can be heard saying ‘I have no time for games,’ but they also play games. The biggest religion in the world today is soccer. How many people watch the World Cup final? And all of the spectators are really playing. It’s not 11 men against 11 others on the field if everyone else is watching, cursing − if they are involved, they are playing.”

As Saban sees it, board games also retain their vitality. “There isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t played some sort of board game,” he says. He has taught his own children and their friends some of the ancient games, much to their enjoyment. “The need to play, and to watch a game, is branded deep within us, and represents a basic component of human culture,” Saban writes in his article.

A Dogs and Jackals game found at Tel Megiddo. Credit: Antiquities Authority
Dr. Michael Saban.Credit: Emil Salman
A stone board game found during an archaeological dig in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Prof. Benjamin Sass and the Antiquities Authority
A Roman board game.Credit: The Antiquities Authority
Bedouin playing Tab.Credit: Prof. Benjamin Sass and the Antiquities Authority

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