Gamer Archaeology

More than 60 Chess pieces carved from wood and bone during the 17th century have been found during excavations at Berezovo in norhtern Siberia. Eight fashioned from fossil ivory were exhibited at the most recent Women’s World Chess Championship.

Archaeologists excavating a pottery workshop in Israel dating back 1,800 years found that the facility had recreational facilities for workers, including a spa and game room. Inside the game room were four game boards similar to Backgammon or Mancala.

A dot pattern carved in to a 4,000 year-old rock shelter in Azerbaijan was determined to be an example of a game known as 58 Holes, or Hounds and Jackals, another precursor to Backgammon. Previously found examples of the game from that period were limited to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Near-East.

Professor Manuel Eisner, with the Violence Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, studied 700 year-old coroner’s records to produce a map of murders in 14th century London. Among his discoveries:

Like in modern societies, homicide was most likely at weekends. Almost a third of all cases (44) occurred on Sundays. Sunday was the day when people had the time to engage in social activities – drinking and playing games that would occasionally trigger frictions leading to assault.

For example:

  • In March 1301, an argument that resulted when three men interrupted a Chequers game being played by two others, ended with one of the interrupting men forcibly stripping one of the players of his clothes and stabbing the other in the chest with a dagger.
  • In November 1321, two men got in to an argument playing the dice game Hazard inside a brewery. Outside after the game, one attacked the other with a sword then ran away and took refuge in a church. Sometime in the following week he escaped and was never caught by authorities.
  • In December 1323, a tavern-keeper was stabbed by a customer that he had beaten in a game of Backgammon.

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A 1,600 year-old board game has been discovered in the tomb of a Germanic prince in Poprad, Slovakia. According to an article in The Slovak Spectator, the game was actually found in 2006 but has taken some time to study and identify. The game consists of a wooden checkerboard and green and white glass playing pieces.

Ulrich Schädler, director of the Museum of Games in Lake Geneva, Switzerland, was quoted as saying that similar playing surfaces have previously been found carved in to the floors of Greek and Roman temples and the pavement of ancient towns. However, this is the first instance found of a portable wood board.

The playing pieces are Roman in style and are believed to originate from the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly Syria. Those studying the tomb, dating back to 375 CE, believe that the prince probably served in the Roman army and brought the game back home, where he was buried with it.

[Image: Matej Ruttkay, SAV]

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When a mid-10th century Viking grave was excavated in Birka, Sweden in the 1880s, the warrior remains within were assumed to be those of a man, despite some contradictory skeletal traits. Using DNA analysis, however, researchers with Stockholm and Uppsala Universities have now established that the occupant of the grave was a woman. The individual carried two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome, demonstrating that the women warriors in Viking poetry and art were no myth.

As befitting such a leader, the individual was also holding a board game.

The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.

[via EurekAlert]

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Ancient Chinese 14 Sided Die

A 14-sided die and game pieces were found by archaeologists in a 2,300 year-old Chinese tomb. According to an article in the journal, Chinese Cultural Relics, the pieces are believed to be for the board game, Bo (also known as Liubo), which has not been played in 1,500 years and for which the rules are long forgotten.

The die found is carved from animal-tooth and inscribed with the numbers 1-6 twice. Two additional faces of the die are blank. Along with the die were found 21 numbered tokens and a broken tile that comprised part of the board. [Images of additional game pieces can be viewed at Live Science.]

The tomb structure in which these game pieces were discovered served as a burial place for aristocrats from the ancient state of Qi. Over the years, it has been extensively looted. Archaeologists have identified 26 different shafts dug in to the tomb. One contained a curled-up skeleton, possibly one of the grave robbers.

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Gamer Archaeology

Lewis ChessmenCarbon dating of walrus bones found in Iceland may lend some support to the theory that the famous Lewis chessmen originated in Iceland instead of Norway. The Lewis chessmen, discovered in 1831 in the Outer Hebrides, are made mostly of Walrus ivory and are one of the few surviving examples of complete Medieval Chess sets. Most scholars, focusing on the style of the carvings, believe that the Lewis chessmen were produced in Norway. An alternative theory, however, asserts that the chessmen more likely originated in Iceland because only there were bishop pieces based on church figures, as is the case with the Lewis set. Now some believe that carbon dating of a series of walrus bones found over a period of years proves that Walrus ivory was available in Iceland at the time the Lewis chessman were made.

Among the items found at the excavation of a Roman village in Gernsheim, Germany are dice and game pieces. The pieces date back to the second century and are made of bone [image credit: Thomas Maurer].

Roman Game Pieces from Gernsheim Germany

Mikhail Tikh was fascinated by the idea that dice originated with uncarved animal bones. Yet when he tried to procure for himself a set of traditional knucklebones, he found it quite difficult. So to make it a bit easier on the next person who might be interested in some hands-on playing with history, Tikh cleaned and scanned some sheep bones, then uploaded the 3D models to Shapeways. A set of four in white nylon runs $27.50.

Archaeologists Unearth More Games

Utah Archaeological Gaming FindsIn a cave off the Great Salt Lake in Utah, archaeologists have found a trove of game gear. The material dates back to the 1200s and includes dice, hoops, and carved sticks, which the archaeologists believe were used for gambling by the short-lived Promontory culture. That the Promontory had the time and resources for gambling during a period of prolonged drought in the Southwest suggests the group was relatively well off. Similarities between the items and game materials from other areas have also helped the archaeologists in their study of Promontory migration.

After 26 years studying an eighth-century pottery plate, archaeologists with the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Japan have decided that the plate was likely used as a game board. They believe the game was similar to Yut Nori, a traditional pastime in Korea, and that the plate is evidence of cultural exchanges between Japan and the Korean peninsula.

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VCU’s Archaeology Chess Sets

A laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University is turning U.S. archaeological finds in to Chess sets. As a way of engaging the public in preservation work, the lab is using 3D scanners and printers to create a virtual catalog of historical objects and replicate some of them as game pieces.

Of the three sets produced so far, one is based on artifacts found at the Jamestown Settlement, one on just spear and arrow heads, and one on miscellaneous objects from various sites. In the Jamestown set, the pawns are modeled on a bust based on the skull of a teenage boy killed by an arrow. In the third set, the pawns are replicas of a turn-of-the-century Frozen Charlotte doll found in Washington, D.C.

VCU Archaeology Chess Set

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