A friend in my early teens had chess skills well-matched with my own. We played constantly, the way some kids today play video games. I switched to backgammon in my late teens and played hundreds of hours over the years. I gave up backgammon when I discovered a new old game 20+ years ago in Ecuador. It is the game in the picture above, and I vaguely referenced it once here. I never stopped to think what drew me to play those games compulsively. Samanth Subramanian, who appeared in our pages once, five years ago, has made my day with this new piece. What We Learn from One of the World’s Oldest Board Games helps me put my love of old games in some kind of historical perspective:
A few years ago, almost by accident, Walter Crist happened upon one of the oldest board games in the world. Crist, who was then working toward a doctorate on ancient Cypriot board games, at Arizona State University, was searching the Internet for images of a game called Fifty-eight Holes. In the second millennium B.C., Fifty-eight Holes was the most popular game of its kind across Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, and roughly eighty boards of the game, in various degrees of incompleteness, rest in museum collections around the world. Images of these boards are well known to scholars, but the photo that Crist eventually found, on the Web site of a magazine called Azerbaijan International, was unfamiliar. Taken at an archaeological site near Baku, it showed a rock carving that bore a strong resemblance to the game’s board: two parallel rows of indentations and an outer, horseshoe-shaped run of more holes. It looked like a four-year-old’s sketch of a tree.
The site, Crist learned, had been destroyed to make way for a housing development, but he eventually got in touch with an archaeologist in Azerbaijan’s Gobustan National Park, who told him that the park held a similar carving. “I think he knew that it was a game, or that people thought it was,” Crist said. “There were other people arguing that it could be an astronomical chart, or a calendar—but nobody that had studied games in any kind of depth.” So Crist decided to go to Gobustan and find out for himself.
Crist, who completed his Ph.D. in 2016, works at the New York Public Library, as a librarian. “I’m on the academic job market, which is terrible and difficult,” he said. When he went to Azerbaijan last spring, he paid for the trip himself, appending it to a visit to Athens to attend the Twenty-first Board Game Studies Colloquium. At Gobustan, near the Caspian coast, he found a vast moonscape of rocks, caves, and mud volcanoes. Archaeologists visit the park for its six thousand petroglyphs: carvings of hunting parties, bulls, boats, and dancing stick men. The glyphs date back at least four thousand years; some might be as old as forty thousand years, reaching back into the Upper Paleolithic age. Not much is known about the artists. Most likely, they were nomadic hunters who lived in rock shelters, charted the heavens, and buried their dead.
Members of the park’s staff took Crist to a horizontal slice of stone set by an upright wall of rock. Nearby, two other slabs leaned against each other at an angle, forming a shelter in which a grown man could sit. The presumptive game board, which measured thirty-seven by twenty-one centimetres, lay near one edge of the flat surface, its holes picked out of the floor. There was no method to determine when these marks were made, but the Gobustan archaeologist told Crist that the glyphs of goats and herders on the adjacent rock face were carved around four thousand years ago. At first, the board, which was exposed to the elements, appeared to contradict one of Crist’s theories: that when ancient gamers began a game outdoors, they did so in the shade. But then he peered at the rock face and saw four bigger, deeper holes punched into it. They were used, he guessed, to hold one end of a canopy that stretched, over the platform of stone, to the rock shelter on the other side. Screened in this way from the rain and the sun, the nomads of Gobustan could have sat down to play.
When modern archaeologists first chanced on a board of Fifty-eight Holes, they mistook it for an inkwell. The board, which was discovered in Egypt early in the nineteenth century, occupies the back of a carved hippopotamus, its hollows set amid inlaid glass on blue faience. The hippo lives at the Louvre, where Anne Dunn-Vaturi, who is something of a Fifty-eight Holes obsessive, previously worked. “Because there were big holes, they thought they were for the ink,” Dunn-Vaturi, now a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, said. She told me about Flinders Petrie, the British Egyptologist who found another board later in the nineteenth century, and who proposed that it was a game. More boards emerged from excavations in Anatolia, Israel, and Iran, the oldest of them dating back to the dawn of the second millennium B.C.
The game’s rules became clearer after 1910, when Howard Carter dug an ivory board out of a pit tomb in Thebes. Carter’s set is held by the Met, and Dunn-Vaturi took me to see it one morning, before the museum opened. The board, perched on legs sculpted like a bull’s, is the size of a paperback and shaped in the manner of a violin. (Another board that is held at the Met is even tinier, brother to a matchbox.) In the tomb, Carter also found ten slim, toothpick-like playing pieces, which can be stored in a small drawer built into the board. The heads of five of the pieces have been whittled to resemble jackals; the other five bear the heads of hounds. At the apex of the board is the goal: a hole marked by the Egyptian Shen symbol, a circle nuzzled by its tangent. Tossing dice or knucklebones, a player moved her five hounds (or jackals) in increments toward the Shen, trying to hustle them through her path of twenty-nine holes faster than her opponent. Some holes were linked by lines, as if a token could lose its place and slide backward, as in Snakes and Ladders. Some other holes were tagged with the Nefer hieroglyph, the symbol for “good”; perhaps some benefit accrued to pieces that landed there, Carter speculated. “We have before us,” he wrote, “a simple, but exciting, game of chance.”…
Read the whole story here.