Neolithic game boards from Jordan. In some places like Petra they were carved into walls of the city for leisurely play? The early mancala game we know today is likely from this, but no one really knows the rules of the ancient games. But archeologists do know that they were a way for socializing people through the ages.
Ever thought about those new and interesting board games that are popping up? Like the ancient game Mehen, based on an Egyptian god and the path to enlightenment. As kids get overstimulated from technology and smartphones, a new trend is to get them to play board games. And now ancient games like mancala and mehen, much lesser known games than chess, are making a comeback. Historically, board games were played by ancient civilizations to socialize. And here we learn more about games from the western east.
According to American anthropologist, Gary Rollefson, western east area board games such as mehen, senet, and later mancala and chess (brought from India to Persia), have been an integral part of the human experience for at least 5000 years. While chess was invented in India it was brought to the world through the Persian empire when the Arabs conquered Persia. Chess was taken up by the Muslim world and subsequently spread to Southern Europe.
And all these old games we played have a history. We interview an anthropologist to find out more.
Over the past two decades what looks like game boards fashioned out of stone have been recovered from sites around 9000 years old, along with game pieces, explains Gary Rollefson, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington.
Archeological records show how the less complex communities than Old World civilizations (Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt) we know today enjoyed an extensive period of social interaction of this kind.
“Board games were widely played throughout the Mediterranean into Africa and the Near East during the Classic period,” Rollefson tells Green Prophet and similar forms of game boards were also popular during the Bronze Age, about 4000 years ago.
“Origins of complex gaming remain debatable, but there is now a wealth of examples of analogous game boards that date from the Neolithic period in Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iran,” he said.
| Neolithic people or the New Stone Age era people, was the final stage of cultural evolution or technological development among prehistoric humans. |
Researchers discovered prehistoric game boards north of Petra, the gorgeous Pink City in Jordan built by Nabateans, at the site called Beidha. It happened in 1966 when Diana Kirkbride discovered them in Beidha.
Games found in ancient garbage
“Evidently made of local sandstone, one complete and three fragmentary examples were recovered from almost the entire span of the 8th millennium BC in domestic and trash contexts,” Rollefson pointed out, noting that all share similar traits, including two rows of depressions.
The depressions are approximately 1 inch in diameter and one quarter inch deep, he explained, adding that the complete “game” has four such holes in each row, all linked by shallow grooves: “the groove link is missing, but two separate grooves between the two rows trace a shallow sinusoidal pattern,” he points out.
Games ancient Iranians used to play
On the other hand, a different kind of board game can be found in Iran from Chagha Sefid found by Frank Hole: the board, made of gypsum, is broken and has 13 holes or traces of holes arranged in 3 parallel rows. The holes are small, measuring only a quarter inch in diameter and depth and the board comes from the Sefid phase, dating to 7400 to 6700 BCE, about 8000 years ago.
Games scratched into the city walls, beginnings of mancala?
Ain Ghazal is a well-known site on the northeastern outskirts of Amman, where two complete game boards came from. The ancient Nabataeans scratched what looks like game boards into flat surfaces all over the city. And they can be found all over the city. While the adults are looking at the big, huge tombs and carvings, send the kids to find the game boards.
Depressions were pecked about a centimeter into the limestone and had a diameter of almost an inch, and the rows converge from the wider end toward the narrower end of the board.
More ancient games in Jordan
“The second specimen from ‘Ain Ghazal [northeast Amman] was recovered in 1996; it is much less intensively worked than the 1989 example. Two rows of four very shallow depressions [less than a centimeter deep and about 3 cm in diameter] were pecked into an almost circular hard limestone slab that is convex on the obverse side,” said Rollefson, noting that the lack of definition of the holes might be an indication that it was not finished, perhaps due to its extraordinary hardness compared to the softer kind of limestone of the other game board.
The stone was later used by ancient architects to serve as a base in a posthole that was part of the roof support system of an apsidal building that may have been used in a cult practice by a kinship group, he speculated.
On a terrace high above the lower Wadi Al Hasa in central Jordan, Adamanitos Sampson excavated two game boards from the site of Wadi Hamarash 1, including a complete and very elaborate specimen, Rolleson underlined, adding that it was made of pink sandstone, and it represents the largest Neolithic game board discovered so far. See top photo.
Game boards have been also found west of the Jordan Valley, in Jericho, when a single fragment of a game board came from a Pottery Neolithic era Rollefson elaborated, noting that only two circular depressions were preserved (and one was nevertheless incomplete) with a narrow channel connecting them.
“Two Late Neolithic game boards were excavated at Shir an agricultural village about 10 miles north-northwest of Hama in the Orontes Valley of Syria. One of the game boards was incorporated as a wall stone in a house; the second game board is a small fragment,” the scholar emphasized, adding that like the odd arrangement of holes in the stone from Chagha Sefid in Iran, the complete Shir game board has three parallel rows of ten shallow holes.
How were ancient games played?
Scholars in general assumed that board games were played by objects such as pebbles or seeds, a Japanese archaeologist Sumio Fujii claims that at Wadi Abu Tulayha colorful semi-translucent pebbles were found that are not available locally, implying that they must have been brought to the site from elsewhere.
One of the major problems regarding the interpretation of human activities and social habits in prehistory is the lack of material evidence, not to mention written sources.