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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Board Games from Ancient Egypt and the Near East

Board games go back a long time. The earliest known boards, which have two or three parallel rows of holes, come from the Neolithic period in the Near East, but we are not sure they were used to play games. Most preserved ancient board games are race games, where players move pieces on a track made of holes or squares; the first player to get all the pieces off the board wins. A great variety of dice—with two, four, or six sides—have been used to determine the movement of gaming pieces. Throw sticks (19.2.24) functioned as the principal randomizing agent in Egypt since the Predynastic Period (ca. 4400–3100 B.C.), whereas the origin of cubic dice remains somewhat mysterious, and is probably to be found in the Indus Valley (10.130.1155; 10.130.1156; 36.30.7). Knuckle bones, typically the astragalus bone of a sheep or goat, have four unique faces and could be thrown to give different results (16.10.505a–c).

Board games are well represented in archaeological material. In Egypt, scenes depicting players exist on tomb walls (08.201.2a–g) and papyri. Secular recreational games were included in rituals illustrating the ties between the sacred and the profane. Egypt and the Near East share a number of games that were transmitted through military campaigns and trade relations. The four games most commonly found in those regions—Mehen, Senet, Twenty Squares, and Hounds and Jackals, which were sometimes closely associated and played on opposite sides of the same boards—are represented in The Met collection.

Mehen, meaning “the coiled one,” was played during the Egyptian Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2130 B.C.). Its board depicts a coiled snake divided into squares, which refers to a protective deity who wrapped around the sun god Re during his journey through the night. The spiral imitates the natural posture of the snake protecting its (or her) eggs. The best description of the game appears in a picture in the tomb of Hesre at Saqqara (ca. 2700 B.C.) showing gaming pieces associated with a Mehen board: three lions, three lionesses, and six sets of six marbles (03.4.13; 10.130.1194b). In Old Kingdom religious documents known as the Pyramid Texts, inscriptions suggest a belief that attainment of the afterlife was achievable by successfully passing through the Mehen game board. By reaching the center of the spiral, one would symbolically join Re on his barque. Miniature games may have been simulacra among the belongings of the deceased (61.33).

Senet is the most famous game from ancient Egypt, where it was in favor from the Predynastic Period to at least the Late Period (664–332 B.C.). Its board is characterized by a pattern of three rows of ten squares, with the last five squares consistently decorated (01.4.1a). The players moved their pieces in a boustrophedon (S-shaped) direction. In the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.), Senet, which means “passing,” became associated with the journey to the afterlife. Scenes of Senet-playing are included among the vignettes of chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead and are magnified on the walls of tombs (30.4.145). Senet and Mehen were limited to Egypt, with variants in neighboring regions (the Levant and Cyprus), whereas Twenty Squares and Hounds and Jackals were found as far as Turkey and on the Iranian Plateau.

The Sumerian version of Twenty Squares, also known as the Royal Game of Ur, was found among personal items deposited around 2600 B.C. in the Royal Graves of the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia. The game was imported from the Near East to Egypt, where it was played between Dynasties 17 and 20 (ca. 1580–1070 B.C.). It is found on the uppermost side of gaming boxes, with Senet on the reverse (16.10.475a; 12.182.72a,b). Many of these boards have the fourth, eighth, and last squares of the central aisle marked by a cross or another symbol. Game pieces for Senet and Twenty Squares were given geometrically simple forms such as cones or spools (35.3.2; 35.3.7), as well as more elaborate articulations, with some pieces that looked like archers, bound prisoners of war, or animals (26.7.1452).

Despite their popularity, the names and rules of some ancient games remain unknown. The game of Fifty-eight Holes bears many modern names, including Hounds and Jackals due to the characteristic ends of the playing pins, which are divided in two sets (26.7.1287a–k; 26.3.154). The holes, made to fit pinlike playing pieces, formed a track on which two players probably raced their pieces until they reached the thirtieth and final hole, shaped like a shen sign (“eternity”) (26.7.1347). The archaeological evidence for this game points to its probable origin in Egypt at the turn of the second millennium B.C., and it would soon spread to Nubia as well as Central Anatolia during the Old Assyrian period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.) (36.70.37g). In Egypt, this game is almost exclusively attested during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.), but it remained popular throughout the Near East, with minor variations in the playing surface, until the mid-first millennium B.C.

Games are found in all sorts of contexts and appearances—from graffito on bricks to ornate boxes made of exotic material—showing that they were popular across all social classes. Egyptian games shed light on playing accessories from the Near East, where evidence is lacking due to the perishable nature of certain materials. Some games were drawn on the ground or woven on textile pieces and are therefore simply lost. Others that were carved in pavements have recently been recorded at previously excavated sites such as Palmyra and Meroë, indicating that games may exist at other sites, awaiting discovery. Ancient race games are often considered precursors of backgammon, which is traditionally understood to have been invented in Persia in the third or sixth century A.D. In fact, new finds from Jiroft in Iran testify that important characteristics of the backgammon board, such as rows of twelve cells split into groups of six, were already present in the region around 2000 B.C., well before Duodecim Scripta, a Roman game with a similar structure attested in Egypt and Nubia.