An Ancient Board Game - Irving Finkel

An Ancient Board Game - Irving Finkel

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Irving Finkel has possibly the coolest job in the world – he’s curator of cuneiform at the British Museum!

Since 1979 he’s been trawling the Museum’s 130,000 clay tablets for clues about life in ancient Mesopotamia. In this film, he tells us about a particular tablet he found that contains the rules of a board game – a board game that he’s been obsessed with since childhood!

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Ancient Board Games in Perspective. Papers from the 1990 Britsh Museum colloquium, with additional contributions

This book begins with an apology by the editor for the length of time for this volume. Seventeen years between conference and publication must be something of a record and inevitably creates high expectations among its readership – will the book be worth the wait? In this case I think the answer will be yes, if only because of the variety of the topics covered and the range of approaches to be found, from the practical to the analytical. The papers are arranged by type of games as well as chronologically within each type. There are several papers on Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greco-Roman and Chinese board games as well as chess, backgammon and mancala. There are also ‘stand alone’ papers, such as those on Hnefatafl and rithmomachia. The papers maintain a fairly consistent standard of quality, although perhaps the most consistent thing is the long shadow of H.J.R. Murray who appears in 16 bibliographies out of the 31 papers. His A History of Board Games other than Chess is obviously still the fount from which all discussion springs. As often happens with festschrift, some of the papers are quite accessible to non-experts, while others are extremely ‘dense’ and will be appreciated only by those who are pursuing in depth scholarly research. There will be very few who read this book cover to cover, but also few who will not find something useful. Given the large number of papers in this collection, I will limit myself to describing groups of papers, noting individual contributions as warranted or merited.

After a useful introduction by Finkel in which he outlines the history and categories of the various types of board games, there is a brief paper on the slim evidence for board games in the Neolithic period. The next two papers are on the Royal Game of Ur, which was probably a race type game in which tokens were moved around a track to a finish. Finkel attempts to reconstruct the original rules for the game, drawing upon a truly impressive array of evidence. Becker offers the suggestion that this game was connected to divination, by showing how the board resembled the models of sheeps’ livers used to teach divination.

There follow five books on various Egyptian games, including Mehen, Hounds and Jackals and ‘the Game of 20 Squares’. All of these games are race games and are known to us principally through the survival of the games boards and pieces. Kendall and Piccione examine the religious aspects of Mehen and Senet respectively. Tait has an intriguing paper addressing the question of whether Egyptians bet on board games. One minor point which reflects how long this book has taken to be published Tait (p. 46) apologizes for his use of the term ‘Gamester’. Since this paper was originally delivered, the term gamester has become quite common, referring to a person who regularly plays on-line computer games.

The next cluster of four papers look at the Greco-Roman world, which divides into two pairs. Bell and Roueché each have papers which catalogue games which have been incised on pavements in the Roman east and Aphrodisias respectively. One minor quibble I have is with Roueché who reads Ἡ τυχη Ουρ as an abbreviation for “the fortune ?(is) Our(?ania) (p. 101). A simpler reading would be “heavenly fortune”. The other two papers, by Rieche and Purcell examine the social and cultural context of such gaming concepts as luck, dice and winning. Purcell is certainly correct when he says that the seemingly frivolous material of gaming can be very illuminating. On the other hand, he tends to over-analyze as when he suggests that a white marble game board invokes the domains of decorative architecture and epigraphy (p. 92-93).

There follows a paper co-authored by Roueché and Bell which details a suggested typology for pavement game boards found in the Greco-Roman world. This methodological paper is very useful and their typology will likely be the standard for future gaming research and not just in the Greco-Roman world. Given the basic and universal nature of this paper, it is surprising that it has been nestled in the middle of the book.

The book then takes a huge step east stopping in India for a catalogue of game boards found so far in the ruins of Vijayanagara before continuing on to China. There are three papers on Chinese board games, followed by three on chess and then five on backgammon, the last of which examines backgammon-like games in China. This cluster of eleven papers demonstrates the interconnectedness of Chinese and Indian culture, at least where games are concerned and highlights the still ongoing debate as to which society can claim to have originated chess and backgammon. The three papers on Chinese board games are largely descriptive and focus on the games themselves, rather than their social context or significance. Andrew Lo does note that shengguan, a board game which the players roll dice to advance through the bureaucratic hierarchy, may have reflected the precarious nature of the careers of officials. Of the three papers on chess, two discuss the origins and antiquity of this game. In the third Eales notes some of the factors that made chess palatable to a western audience. Semenov tackles the topic of the origin of backgammon by examining the archaeological record. This serves as an introduction to Micaela Soar’s fulsome contribution which describes the origins of backgammon and argues that this game began in India and then spread eastward to China. The other three papers discuss the spread of backgammon into China and western Europe.

The book then travels to Africa for three papers on the game of Mancala. This game, which may be the world’s oldest, involves inserting and then moving small pieces, usually rocks, beads, etc. around a course of two rows of small cups. The object of the game is either to capture more pieces than your opponent, or to put your opponent in a position where they have no legal move. There are three papers, the first of which outlines the rules and some basic variations. The other two look at how mancala reflects the culture which plays it. Townsend examines how the variations in the rules of play often reflect the society. He describes the various types of play as “metaphors of different lifestyles” (p. 249). Walker discusses how mancala functioned among the tribal elite, a phenomenon which seemed to be quite widespread in Africa.

The next two papers deal with two very arcane games hnefatafl and rithmomachia. Hnefatafl is a strategy game very similar to chess, except that only one side has a king. The object is for the player with the king to reach a certain point on the board. The opponent wins by capturing the king. Riddler surveys the playing pieces which have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves in order to traces the game’s origins. Rithmomachia (the philosopher’s game) is easily the most complex game discussed in the book and involves both strategy and complex mathematical computations. Stigter attempts to create modern rules for this medieval game. In this last paper there was a minor mistranslation of a Latin line where omnia disposuisti is rendered as “everything is ordered” (p. 263), whereas it really says, “you ordered everything”. Of slightly more significance is the fact that two individual lines of Latin are translated for the reader, but later longer passages, two of Latin and one of French are left untranslated.

The book ends with something of a flourish. Freeman-Wittholt traces the work of Robert Stewart Culin on board games in Meso-America with the ultimate purpose of showing his influence in the origins of Monopoly. This very neatly brings the book into the modern era.

The production is of a very high quality, amply illustrated and with very few typos – none that detract from the book. As examples, the word ‘to’ is missing on page 13 and on page 22 in a chart of probability 1:10 is written instead of 1:16. Also, on page 122, fig. 15.17 0.24mm is written where 24mm is obviously meant. But this is pretty insignificant stuff. Overall, the papers are written at a fairly high academic level, but are generally accessible to a wider audience. One thing which seems missing was any acknowledgement that some of these ancient board games have been revived in contemporary western society.

What might stand out most in this book is the wide variety of methodologies and goals. Some papers are interested in the games for their own sakes, attempting to reconstruct the rules of play or to trace a game’s origins. Other papers use the games as tools to help create an understanding of the cultures which played them. Each goal has its own merits and it is refreshing to see them rub shoulders in the same text. This book should have quite a broad appeal, not only to students and scholars of a wide range of cultures and civilizations, but also to individuals with an interest in board games.

Finkel was born in 1951 to a dentist father and teacher mother, one of five children (including a sister named Angela), and grew up at Palmers Green, North London. [2] [3] He was raised as an Orthodox Jew but became an atheist as a teenager. [4] [5] He earned a PhD in Assyriology from the University of Birmingham under the supervision of Wilfred G. Lambert with a dissertation on Babylonian exorcistic spells against demons. [6]

Philology Edit

Finkel spent three years as a Research Fellow at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. In 1976 he returned to the UK, and he was appointed as Assistant Keeper in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, where he was (and remains) responsible for curating, reading and translating the museum's collection of around 130,000 cuneiform tablets. [7]

In 2014, Finkel's study of a cuneiform tablet that contained a Flood narrative similar to that of the story of Noah's Ark, described in his book The Ark Before Noah, was widely reported in the news media. [8] [9] The ark described in the tablet was circular, essentially a very large coracle or kuphar and made of rope on a wooden frame. The tablet included sufficient details of its dimensions and construction to enable a copy of the ark to be made at about 1/3 scale and successfully floated, as documented in a 2014 TV documentary Secrets of Noah's Ark that aired as an episode of PBS's NOVA series. [10]

Finkel is an Honorary Member of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity of the University of Birmingham and a Council Member of the Anglo-Israel Archaeology Society. [ citation needed ]

Board games Edit

Finkel studies the history of board games, and is on the Editorial Board of Board Game Studies. [11] Among his breakthrough works is the determination of the rules of the Royal Game of Ur. [7]

Great Diary Project Edit

Finkel founded the Great Diary Project, a project to preserve the diaries of ordinary people. In association with the Bishopsgate Institute, Finkel has helped to archive over 2,000 personal diaries. In 2014, the V&A Museum of Childhood held an exhibition of the diaries of children written between 1813 and 1996. [12]

Literary Edit

Finkel has written a number of works of fiction for children. [13]

He appeared in the 2014 memoir The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington.

Finkel lives in southeast London with his wife Joanna and has five children. [7]

An Ancient Board Game - Irving Finkel - History

If you’re feeling the need to step away from the screen, here are 10 historical board games from the collection – some of which you can still play today. You can buy replicas of some of the games from our online shop.

1. The Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is the oldest playable boardgame in the world, originating around 4,600 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.

The game’s rules were written on a cuneiform tablet by a Babylonian astronomer in 177 BC. From this, curator Irving Finkel was able to decipher the rules – two players compete to race their pieces from one end of the board to the other. The central squares were also used for fortune telling.

If you want to try the game for yourself, you can buy your very own replica from our online shop here.

Discover how to play this game of speed and strategy with Tom Scott and Irving Finkel in this video:

These charismatic chess pieces are the Lewis Chessmen – some of the most iconic objects in the Museum.

Made in Scandinavia in the late 12th century, the skilfully carved chess pieces were found on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland around 1831.

It’s thought they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland, and various stories have emerged to explain why they may have been concealed there.

The chessmen are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of berserkers – fierce mythical warriors.

‘Check’ out all our replica chess sets in our online shop here.

Hear how the Lewis Chessmen are linked to a certain boy wizard in this video:

Wari is a game of calculation and strategy played widely within West Africa and also popular elsewhere in the world – you might know it as mancala.

The aim of the game is to capture the seeds of your opponent, moving them from their six playing holes to your bank.

This game board was made in Sierra Leone and is notable for its elaborate sculptural base. It’s decorated with an animal, possibly a pig.

If you don’t have a game board at home, you can play by drawing two rows of six circles on a piece of paper, with an oval at each end, and use 48 marbles, beads, pebbles, or even sweets as your counters.

Find out how to play with a blog from the spruce crafts here (external link).

4. Senet

Beloved by Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari alike, senet is one of the earliest known board games, dating to around 3100 BC.

The game board comprises 30 squares, laid out in three rows of 10. Two players compete to race all their pieces to the end of the board, using casting sticks or bones, rather than dice, to determine the number of squares moved with each throw.

Some boards, like this one made from a hollowed-out piece of wood faced with ivory, have completely blank squares, whereas others include squares decorated with hieroglyphs representing additional game rules.

On this papyrus, dating to around 1250–1150 BC, a lion plays senet with a gazelle, despite having a bit of trouble holding the pieces.

5. Mahjong

First played during the Qing dynasty in China (1644–1912), mahjong is a strategy based game played using tiles. They are traditionally decorated with Chinese characters, bamboo branches and dots, and special tiles are indicated with winds, dragons, flowers and seasons. This incomplete set has 140 of the original 144 tiles, which are made from bamboo and bone – each tile weighs just six grams.

It is similar in practice to the card game rummy, and four players draw and discard tiles to complete their hand. The aim of the game is to get all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair.

Mahjong was introduced to the West in the 19th century, and has grown in popularity internationally since. You can find an exquisitely-made mahjong set in our online shop here, and master the game for yourself.

6. The Game of the Goose

The earliest commercially produced board game, the Game of the Goose is a game of chance and luck, involving no strategy at all.

Duke Francesco de Medici first gifted the game, then called Gioco dell’Oca to Philip II of Spain between 1574 and 1587, and the pastime quickly spread in popularity throughout Europe. These examples dating from 1774 to the late 19th century include the rules in French, German and Italian.

The aim of the game is to get your counter to the centre of the board, moving counterclockwise according to rolls of a die. Some spaces are accompanied by special rules – for example, if you land on number 58 you must start the game again, or if you land on number 19 you might pay a forfeit and drink until your next turn. Players must score a perfect 63 to win the game.

To play ‘Game of the Goose’ at home, simply copy or print out any of the versions linked in the captions above, which handily hold all the rules on the board, find two dice, and enjoy!

7. Ajax and Achilles’ game of dice

Made in Athens around 530 BC, this amphora shows Ajax and Achilles – two of the heroes of the Trojan war – playing a board game, possibly with pessi, or dice.

Seven counters or dice are visible on the game board, and Ajax reaches out to pick up one of his pieces for the next throw, as they pass the hours between the fighting.

We can’t be sure what game they were playing, or how the dice were scored, but an equivalent might be backgammon, which involves both counters and dice. It dates back nearly 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, and versions were played in the Byzantine Empire in 5th-century and in 6th-century Persia.

Hear from curator Irving Finkel about the history of board games – including chess and backgammon – in this audio clip.

Curator Victoria Donnellan invites us into the world of Ajax and Achilles’ game in this video:

First brought to Japan from China in the 8th century, sugoroku was originally a complex game played by two people with a pair of dice and fifteen counters each, popular among the Japanese elite.

Affordable woodblock-printed sugoroku sheets were developed in the Edo period (1615–1868), meaning this form of the game – e-sugoroku – meaning ‘picture sugoroku’, could be played widely. It is similar in style to western snakes and ladders, and this 18th-century example uses the hierarchical status system, from merchant to artisan, farmer and warrior in ascending order.

It can be played by two or more people, who advance their pieces according to dice rolls around a clockwise spiral. Each player starts at the ‘merchant’ square, in the bottom right-hand corner, and the goal is to reach the largest square in the centre – ‘daimyo lord’s first arrow shooting of the year’, with a picture of a samurai drawing his bow in the presence of high-ranking courtiers.

Each square is illustrated with a different occupation, including fishmongers, pharmacists, plasterers, priests, doctors and scholars. Print the game out and play it for yourself to see if you can spot them all – you’ll just need dice and some counters to get started.

9. Pachisi

Pachisi is an Indian game played since at least the 16th century on a board shaped like a symmetrical cross. The aim of the game is to move all four of your pieces around the board before your opponents do, with the central square acting as the start and finish point.

The number of spaces moved on each turn is determined by a throw, traditionally of cowrie shells, and the number of shells which land with their opening upwards dictates the number of spaces moved. In other iterations of the game, shells are replaced by beehive-shaped pieces, like these below.

The name of the game is derived from the Hindi word paccīs, meaning twenty-five – the largest score possible with one throw, where none of the pieces land upside down, and so the game is also known as Twenty Five.

The principles of pachisi were taken to create Ludo – a simplified version of the same game – in England in 1896. Find out more here.

10. Mehen

Named after the Egyptian snake god, Mehen was played from around 3000 BC until 2300 BC.

The game board is in the shape of a coiled snake, whose body is divided up into rectangular segments, and teams of up to six players race from the tail to the head and back again, with additional lion-shaped gaming pieces.

The rules and scoring system of Mehen are unknown, but a modern equivalent might be Hyena – a North African game where players race a mother piece along a spiral track from the outside (the village), to the centre (the well), and back. The first to finish wins and releases a hyena, which also travels along the spiral, eating other players’ pieces as it goes!

We hope you enjoyed our rundown of some historic board games – let us know if they’ve cured your boredom and if you’re enjoying playing any by tweeting us @britishmuseum.

Find more great games and perplexing puzzles to challenge your mind in our online shop here.

Towards a Cultural History of Indian Board Games: Backgammon, Chaupar and Chaturanga

Mohit Srivastava is a research scholar at Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. His research interests include aesthetics and politics, new media cultures, and performance studies. He has also studied Hindustani Classical Music at Gandharva Sangeet Mahavidyalaya, Pune.

One of the unexpected wonders of the Fatehpur Sikri complex built by Akbar in the 16th century is the Pachisi Courtyard. (Fig.1) As the engravings on the brick floor fade, this large outdoor area—eclipsed by a fort compound on one side and a lavish green garden on the other—escapes the attention of the unsuspecting tourist.

Fig. 1. The Pachisi courtyard located inside the Fatehpur Sikri Complex in Agra. Pachisi, also known as chaupar, was accepted as an imperial game in Akbar’s court (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Abu’l Fazl, court historian of Akbar, tells us that during festivals this area would be used as a giant outdoor board for playing pachisi. Another legend has it that courtesans dressed in different colours acted as pieces of the game, leaping from box to box as their ruler rolled the dice sitting at the centre.

Regardless of which narrative is true, it is undeniable that the game of pachisi (often called chaupar, its close cognate) had an important place in the life of the imperial court. Abu’l Fazl diligently informs us how pachisi matches would go on for days, and the emperor would often mete out punishment to anyone who displayed even the slightest tedium or uneasiness with the game. [1]

Board games like pachisi, chaturanga, backgammon and gyan chaupar were important to various court cultures throughout India. In fact, Indian board games were in high demand in other imperial courts of the world too. The incident of Indian ambassadors presenting chaturanga to Khusrow I, King of Persia, finds mention in various Persian manuscripts. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Indian ambassadors presenting chaturanga to Khusrow I, as depicted in the ‘Treatise on Chess’, fourteenth-century Persian manuscript. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

But board games have been a vital part of life outside the court as well. Many game traditions transcended the boundaries of the court and entered the lives of ordinary folk. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, they appear not only in court paintings but also in temple sculptures, epics and literary traditions. Indeed, it may not be wrong to say that understanding or developing a history of board games is akin to understanding various levels of Indian society in one broad sweep.

A Brief History: Board Games and Their Movements
Some of the earliest evidences of board games come from Indus Valley Civilisation in the form of archeological finds. The exact nature of the game and their rules are difficult to ascertain. Some scholars, like Irving Finkel, have to study the nature and rules of such games by looking at contemporaneous board games from Sumeria (like the famous game of Ur) about which a fair bit is known. [2] It is also clearly evident that gambling was a widespread activity in the Vedic period. Several hymns in the Rig Veda attest to this, most popular among them being a ‘Gamester’s Lament’. [3]

Study of this period gives us some ideas about the materials used in the games, even if they do not tell us much about the rules of the games played then. It seems that during this period, use of long rectangular dice, apart from the popular cubic dice, was widespread. Cowry shells came into the picture much later and became a popular choice, especially among the common people. Sources and evidences in the study of board games become more accessible as we approach the middle of the first millennium, the period of development of the games like chaupar and backgammon.

Backgammon seems to have emerged around the early Gupta period. Micaela Soar extensively surveyed extant archeological evidences to conclude that the early Indian form of backgammon emerged around 400 CE from the Punjab region and became the characteristic 2 x 12 row board game of backgammon. [4] This ancient board game was popular throughout the Indian subcontinent before it completely vanished from most textual and scriptural sources by the end of the first millennium. At the height of its popularity, it found representation in the art and culture of the time, famously as the game of Shiva and Parvati at various temples in the Ellora caves. (Fig. 3) Interestingly enough, backgammon moved out of India, towards Persia, by the end of the first millennium before being brought back as a Persian game in the Deccan in the medieval period by Mughals and various Sultanates. [5]

Fig. 3. Shiva and Parvati playing backgammon in the top panel, while ganas in the lower panel fight over the bull (possibly because Parvati has won and Shiva has staked his bull in the gamble) (Courtesy: Digital South Asian Library, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon)

Chaupar (or pachisi) has an even more interesting timeline. It reached its high point during the Mughal period (as attested by the giant outdoor game board built by Akbar). It is also the game that most traditions ascribe to the downfall of Yudishthira in the Mahabharata.

Various forms of chaupar have flourished in India. The most modern version of this game is ludo, which was reintroduced in India by the British around 1950. Many commercial versions of Indian chaupar were extremely popular in the US in the twentieth century. (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4. The game Pachisi was adapted into a popular US version such as ‘Sorry!’ (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Gyan chaupar
The race game gyan chaupar also has a similar history. It was probably invented by Jain monks as a didactic game in the early part of the second millennium and later adopted by Hindu and Sufi traditions throughout the centuries of assimilation during the Bhakti period. However, it was reintroduced in India as the British game of snakes and ladders from the twentieth century onwards.

Chaturanga was one of the more popular aristocratic games of ancient India. Developing around the sixth century CE, it started off as a didactic game to teach young princes about the four angas (parts) of the royal army: the infantry, the elephants, the chariot and the cavalry. The game was invented in India before being introduced to the West Asians, who took it to Europe from where chess, its most modern version, emerged.

The word chaturanga first appeared in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This immensely popular game has undergone various changes from chaturanga to shatranj to finally chess.(Fig. 5)

Fig. 5. A chess set, possibly from the Delhi–Punjab region dating back to the nineteenth century. The pieces are made of ivory (Courtesy: Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena)

Most of the extant game boards that have been recovered come from the seventeenth century onwards. Therefore, histories of games that remained popular till then are easier to construct than others. In this respect, the efforts of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore (1794–1868) have been exemplary. A man of great cultural refinement and a board game enthusiast himself, he went to great lengths to help document and collect various folk board game traditions of India, resulting in long encyclopedias on the subject. For any ancient games enthusiast in South Asia, his collection is a treasure trove yet to be understood and written about. Scholars have only recently started going through his collections and have discovered various new aspects of South Indian games. [6]

Let us now look at the various cultural contexts in which these games come up and the roles they serve in their respective economy of meanings and symbols. First, we investigate the notion of the divine that occurs in various board games and its attendant representational forms.

The Divine Play
The question of the divine has always preceded the question of play and pleasure in ancient India. Numerous strands of Hindu philosophy fashion the world as an endless form of maya or illusion, highlighting the perpetual nature of the divine play or lila. As such, understanding the divine through its representations in traditions of ancient Indian board games becomes crucial.

Shiva and Parvati
One of the most enduring motifs throughout Indian art has been Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice. One such relief from Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, portrays Shiva and Parvati playing the game. (Fig. 6) One can see Parvati is holding a dice in her hand and is about to play. This is an important theme, particularly in the cave temples of western Maharashtra where such ‘scenes appear in prominent position in relation to the central shrine’. [7] There was some confusion around the type of the board game they are shown playing but recently it has been identified as backgammon. [8]

Fig. 6. Relief of Shiva and Parvati playing a game of dice from tenth-century Madhya Pradesh, Rani Durgavati Museum, Jabalpur (Courtesy: Digital South Asian Library, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon)

The Puranic tradition insists that the entire world is created as a result of this divine play between Shiva and Parvati, representing Purusha and Prakriti, with each move of the players mirroring different states of the world, potential or realised. The popular Kashikhanda episode of the Skanda Purana attests thus [9] :

O God of Gods, your game is the whole universe
The houses on the gaming board, O Lord, are the twelve months,
The dark and light pieces are the days of the moon,
Of which there are twice fifteen in month, the two dice are two paths of the sun
The two outcomes, victory and defeat, are called Creation and Dissolution.
When Devi wins there is Emanation,
When Dhurjati (Shiva) wins there is Reabsorption.

The game described in some detail in the passage above is the ancient game of backgammon. (Fig. 7) The obsessive play of Shiva and Parvati often results in Shiva putting at stake (and subsequently losing) everything and causing a lot of divine commotion (such as the birth of the demon Andhaka). In some traditions (particularly, eastern Indian sculptures), Shiva is shown as always losing to Parvati. This recurrent loss of Shiva to Parvati has led some scholars to wonder, ‘Why does Shiva play? Why does this god keep slipping into the game of dice, knowing, as he seems to, that he will almost certainly lose, and that other destructive consequences will flow from this defeat?’ [10]

Fig. 7. Traditionally, Shiva loses but there are a few rare reliefs where Shiva wins by cheating. On such occasions, Parvati lifts her hand and expresses vismaya or amazement. Vismaya is an important part of Shiva–Parvati games (Courtesy: Digital South Asian Library, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon)

This question leads Shulman and Handelman, through their reading of Indian sculptures in cave temples and various religious texts, to conclude that fundamental notions of ‘asceticism, so frequently associated with Shiva, with Yoga, and with Hindu religion as a whole, are in fact foreign to its inherent logic.’ They alternatively suggest the primacy of ‘play of Shiva’ as being the cornerstone of the Hindu view of the world. Here, games understood as ‘forms of excesses, spilling over, self-extrusion’ transform the entire Hindu faith. [11]

Such theories illustrate what reading innocuous-seeming board games can do for us. Reading board games culturally can illuminate lost traditions, highlight alternative ways of understanding religion and, above all, provide us a route to a complex cultural past.

Gyan Chaupar and Shortcuts to Heaven
Board games were not simply meant as a pleasurable pastime, they were also intended for didactic purposes. The game of snakes and ladders, one of the most popular board games promoted by the British around the world, was originally conceived as an edifying game. The game is imbued with moral exhortation and imagery. Players are asked to play along the board and as they stumble upon virtues—‘faith’, ‘kindness’ or ‘forgiveness’—they leap ahead, climbing ladders if they land on vices— ‘cruelty’, ‘avarice’ or ‘pride’—they are bitten by snakes which makes them fall down the numbers. This seemed to be the modular form of the snakes and ladders popular throughout the twentieth century, which was later made plain and simple, devoid of all the moralising (such as the versions we are more familiar with).

The game of snakes and ladders is the British version of the old Indian game, gyan chaupar. The Indian game has variety of versions spread across various parts of India and Nepal. A typical gyan chaupar game would consist of labelled boxes, which would indicate the states of being a player inhabits the role of snakes is to punish players for vices, and the role of the ladders is to reward virtues.

The common thread unifying these board games was the moral injunction they sought to inculcate. Gyan chaupar also reveals the most elaborate and consistent doctrinal systems of karmic classification, part of Vaishnava or Jain philosophy. The movement of the players across the board game mirrors their movement from lower ways of being to progressively higher states, specific ascents of soul as also the relative seriousness of vices one can commit as indicated by the length of the snakes and the descent they cause a player.

In a similar vein, a lot of Bhakti literature also uses the metaphor of board games to highlight its central problems and solutions to them. For one such instance, sample this Kabir hymn [12] :

The Chaupar is spread out at the crossroads
In the midst of the up and down bazaar:
With Satguru as your partner,
You will never lose the game!

In the above hymn, we can see how the imagery of the game of chaupur is being used to refer to the confusing world (crossroads is an allusion to the four sides of chaupar game board). And the way out of this confusing world is the divine guru. Many such verses exist throughout the canonical texts that ostensibly use the metaphor repeatedly—of the world as a board game and players as humans thrust into this game. All these literary allusions depict the everydayness of board games in Indian life and the role they must have commanded in the cultural memory of communities.

The Games and Their Excess
The previous section highlighted the creative potential of ancient board games, their ability to transform human lives and values. We analysed the cultural context whereby the game of dice by Shiva gave life to Hinduism in one such reading of the game, and also how gyan chaupar helped in the instruction of various precepts of Vaishnava and Jain karmic philosophy. This section will move away from looking at the creative and the inspiring in traditional board games to analysing their destructive and catastrophic potential. We investigate this by looking at the cultural moments when these games become excessive or obsessive for their players. What do our epics, histories, narratives say happens when these games are played in their excess?

This question is important because the cultural record of traditional board games is just as much a history of celebration and carnival as it is a history of proscription and injunctions prohibiting it. For instance, the third-century Kamasutra of Vastsyayana lists skill at dice and other related games among the 64 polite arts of a human being, while Jain and Buddhist texts and the Manusmriti completely dismiss board games as frivolities and prohibit them.

The most obvious reminder of the ill effects of such games in the cultural memory of the subcontinent comes from the Mahabharata, where the young prince Yudhishthira loses it all because of his indulgent desire to keep on playing despite repeated warnings by his well-wishers. The exact game played between the two warring factions—Kauravas and Pandavas—is generally depicted to be chaupar but sometimes it is backgammon as well. The game is usually depicted as chaupar in Rajput paintings. However, in some renditions such as in versions of the Nepalese Mahabharata, the game depicted is backgammon.

In the Mahabharata, the board game sets in motion an epoch-making chain of events thus, the board game and what it highlights about human nature is so central to the narrative of the epic. Along with Yudishthira, Nala, a minor character in the Mahabharata, also loses his wife in the course of a board game. This motif of characters being lost in game is continued to literature and art of our times. Another memorable rendering along the same theme is the famous Prem Chand novel Shatranj Ke Khiladi which, Topsfield writes, ‘satirises the escapist ethos of 19th century Lucknow, and its obliviousness to the greater political game being played out by the British in their moves to annex the kingdom.’ He adds, ‘It was time of Wajid Ali Shah. Lucknow was plunged in pleasures. The young and the old, the poor and the rich were all pleasure-bent. There was among people a passion for chess-board and playing cards.’ [13] In more recent times, M.F. Hussain adopted the theme in his famous painting of the same name. Here, the game of chess becomes a symbol of general decay and decline of the Indian society.

In conclusion, through their various movements across dispersed contexts, board games have come to play an important role in illustrating a historical narrative of our past. We have seen how they help us understand religion, philosophy, and the myriad movements of powers across Asia and Europe. These factors necessitate a project to construct a cultural history of board games. Hopefully, in times to come, art historians will pay more attention to these artefacts of ancient India.

[1] Blochmann, The Ain-i Akbari of Abu'l Fazl Allami.

Lost Games of the Americas

Numerous games are known from the Aztec Empire and other past civilizations of Central America. Among them, patolli required some pebbles, a mat painted with squares in an X or cross, as well as several large beans, marked on one face by a dot or hole. Players tossed the beans how they landed determined the throw’s score — the number of squares players could move their pebbles along the mat. Competitors and onlookers bet on the outcomes, often invoking Macuilxochitl, god of games, for luck. On feast days, people convened from far-flung territories and gambled with valuable exotic goods.

Despite its widespread popularity, little physical evidence remains of patolli. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors banned the game, destroyed mats and burned the beans as part of their efforts to destroy indigenous cultures. What contemporary scholars do know about patolli comes from passages in colonial-era manuscripts describing its play.

The situation is reversed for a much older pebble racing game: Researchers discovered traces of the game, but no written or pictorial records of the rules. In a 2013 Latin American Antiquity paper , archaeologist Barbara Voorhies described possible game boards from a roughly 5,000-year-old site in southern Mexico, near Chiapas.

Within a mangrove swamp, the island site appears to have been an intermittent fishing camp where ancient people caught and prepared aquatic resources. In addition to thousands of piled-up clamshells, excavations uncovered two potential boards. The better-preserved comprises 24 finger-sized holes, fairly evenly spaced in an oval, imprinted in the claylike floor. In the oval’s center was an impression where a rock probably sat. Although the rules are unknown, Voorhies points to similar-looking games played in later monumental cities like Teotihuacan and Copan, as well as by Native American groups described in ethnographic accounts in the early in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In these games, players raced pieces along the hole course based on dice rolls.

It seems that 5,000 years ago, the fishers at this camp played games as they waited for their clams to dry. Not so different from you whipping out your phone to play Candy Crush as you wait in the coffee line.

Ludus Latrunculorum

A Ludus Latrunculorum board found in Roman Britain (English Heritage / The Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund)

The toast of the Roman Empire, Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi was a two-player strategy game designed to test participants’ military prowess. Played on grids of varying sizes—the largest known example measures 17-by-18 squares—the so-called “Game of Mercenaries” was likely a variant of the ancient Greek game Petteia. (Aristotle sheds some light on Petteia’s rules, likening a “man without a city-state” to an “isolated piece in Petteia” left vulnerable to capture by an opponent.)

The first documented mention of Ludus Latrunculorum dates to the first century B.C., when Roman writer Varro described its colored glass or precious stone playing pieces. Two hundred or so years later, the anonymously authored Laus Pisonis painted a vivid picture of gameplay, explaining, “[T]he enemy ranks are split, and you victoriously emerge with ranks unbroken, or with the loss of one or two men, and both your hands rattle with the horde of captives.” The poets Ovid and Martial also referenced the game in their works.

Despite its recurrence in both written and archaeological evidence, Ludus Latrunculorum’s exact rules remain unclear. Various scholars have proposed potential reconstructions of the game over the past 130 years, according to Ancient Games. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is Ulrich Schädler’s 1994 essay, translated into English in 2001, which suggests players moved pieces forward, backward and sideways in hopes of surrounding an isolated enemy piece with two of their own. Captured tokens were then removed from the board, leaving victorious players’ hands “rattl[ing] with the crowd of pieces,” as Laus Pisonis put it.

Royal Game of Ur – Game of 20 Squares

The Royal Game of Ur is a Sumerian version of the ancient Middle Eastern game generically called The Game of Twenty Squares, in Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1926-1927, and is dated to roughly to 2500 BCE. One of the copies from Ur is kept in the British Museum.

Royal Game of Ur – British Museum – 1928,1009.379.a

The original rules of the Royal Game of Ur are unknown, but have been reconstructed by a few different historians based on a cuneiform tablet found in 1880 in Iraq, which is now located in the British Museum (Rm-III.6.b – 33333B). The tablet was written in 177-176 BCE by a Babylonian Scribe Itti-Marduk-balatu.

Cuneiform Tablet with rules for The Game of Twenty Squares – British Museum Rm-III.6.b – 33333B. Front and Back Sides.

The problem with most rules proposed by historians, such as RC Bell and Irving Finkel is that the game is boring and not challenging. Considering that different versions of this game were found in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries with over 100 examples found archaeologically, we can assume that the game was popular and lots of fun. Historians who reconstructed rules of play lumped the Royal Game of Ur together with Egyptian Aseb, Jiroft Game of 20 Squares, and Shahr-i Sokhta Game of 20 Squares, which used the same board, but did not have any of the square markings, and since the boards are all similar looking and contain 20 squares. However, The Royal Game of Ur board is so much more elaborately designed than Aseb, Jiroft, and Shahr-i Sokhta that it would make more sense that this game is a similar type of game, but the rules are different.

Game of 20 Squares. Shahr-i Sokhta, found in the grave IUP 731. Tehran, the National Museum of Iran.

I have presented here the most interesting and challenging set of rules which is specific to the Royal Game of Ur and require square markings on each square, as opposed to just blank squares. These rules were developed by a Russian game re-constructor Dmitriy Skiryuk (Дмитрий Скирюк) and originally published on his blog in Russian.

Dmitriy Skiryuk’s Rules:

  1. Number of players is 2.
  2. The game includes the board, 7 white pieces with dots on one side and the other side blank, 7 black pieces with dots on one side and the other side blank, and 3 tetrahedral dice with two of the peaks of the pyramid marked in a different color than the other two peaks.
  3. All three dice are thrown at the same time. The score is determined as follows:
    1. If one dice has the colored corner up and the other two dice have it down then the score is 1.
    2. If two dice have the colored corner up and the third dice has it down then the score is 2.
    3. If all three dice have the colored corner up then the score is 3.
    4. If none of the three dice have the colored corner up then the score is 4, which is the maximum obtainable score.
    1. If the cell is a safe cell or a cell with eyes (see details further below) then both pieces can reside on it.
    2. If the cell is any other type of cell and the opponent’s piece cannot be knocked off then the piece cannot be moved to that cell.

    An Ancient Board Game - Irving Finkel - History

    The Getty Villa
    Date: Sunday, April 2, 2017
    Time: 2:00 p.m.
    Location: Auditorium

    This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel's extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime's fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

    Learn to play Ur!
    Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
    1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
    Villa Education Studio/Court
    This is a free, drop-in program.

    About Irving Finkel
    Philologist and Assyriologist Irving Finkel is assistant curator of the department of the Middle East at the British Museum in London, and has been a cuneiform tablet curator there since 1979. He holds his degrees from the University of Birmingham, England, and is especially interested in ancient magic and medicine, all aspects of ancient cuneiform literature, and the history of the world's board games. His recent publications include The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (2014).

    Planning your visit
    The Getty Villa and its galleries are open to the general public from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. With your program ticket, you may arrive up to one hour prior to the start time of the program. For earlier arrival, a separate general admission ticket is recommended. The auditorium opens at 1:30 p.m. and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. The Café is open for lunch service from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., and the Getty Store is open until 5:00 p.m.

    How to Get Here
    The Getty Villa is located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California, approximately 25 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. See Hours, Directions, Parking for directions and parking information.

    Contribution of Irving Finkel to Board Games

    * Note by Raghu Dharmendra: Beard and twinkling eyes, very much reminds one of Professor Albus Dumbledore.


    Very interesting. Had never heard of this man . His obsessive hunt for a forgotten board game is amazing .

    Yes, he seems as quixotic and magical as Dumbledore !

    thank you so much for sharing this, Very interesting story and I am very greatful to hear about his little quest to find the surviving mutation of Ur. I too find the mutation and spread of games to be fascinating.

    thank you so much for sharing this, Very interesting story and I am very greatful to hear about his little quest to find the surviving mutation of Ur. I too find the mutation and spread of games to be fascinating.

    What a fascinating man Finkel is! I would love to meet him.
    I was looking for his translation of the cuneiform tablet that describes the Game of Ur, but so far without success. We enjoy playing the game sold by the British Museum.
    from Oriole

    Watch the video: Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing - with Irving Finkel (May 2022).


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