Ancients used these bones for fortune telling, games

maresha bones, astragali held in hands of researcher

Archeologist Lee Perry holding astragali gaming dice

Archeologists in Israel have recently discovered an unusual assortment of animal bones dating from about 2300 years ago, the biblical period, that were used in games and for telling the future, a craft called divination. The discovery tells us something new about the past – and perhaps reveals a little about our present and future. 

A cache of 530 animal knuckle bones were found in the ancient city of Maresha, which today is located in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park in in southern Israel. Called “astragali” the bones were unearthed by Dr. Ian Stern in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park in the Judean Shefelah in southern Israel in a huge underground cave complex below the ancient city of Maresha.

The astragali — made from bones of goats, sheep and cattle were used like we’d use dice for  gaming and fortune telling, mainly by women and children. Some of the knuckle bones were shaved down, or perforated, or filled with lead, to be thrown more effectively.

Some of the dice were carved with Greek inscriptions; some were engraved with the names of gods associated in ancient times with human wishes and desires. Some that came into play were Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility, love and beauty, Eros, the god of love, the god Hermes, the goddess Hera, and Nike, the goddess of victory, appear among other gods.

On other knuckle bones, game instructions and various role play instructions are engraved, such as “Robber”, “Stop!”, “You are burnt”.

astralagi gaming bones and divining bones made from animal knuckles

Carved inscriptions on the astralagi showing Greek letters

“The assemblage shows that in ancient times of distress, as today, people sought help  from external factors, in magic and spells and in the world of the unknown,” says one of the researchers Lee Perry-Gal, Israel Antiquities Authority zoo-archaeologist and research fellow in the University of Haifa.

She adds: “In the past, men, and especially women, struggled with an environment of uncertainty, death, childbirth, and health issues, and tried to protect themselves with the help of magic. In addition, we know that astragali were used for games.

“It is noteworthy that we have examples of children buried with similar gaming dice. The cubes, which were a popular gaming activity, had a role in accompanying children to the next world, to be used there. Since the astragali symbolize good luck, it was customary to inter them under the house threshold, in the hope that they will bring good luck and prosperit,” she adds.

The cultic role of bones

The knuckle bones are often found next to ostraca – pottery sherds with writing inscribed or written in ink –  with Aramaic texts, such as, ‘Magical Incantation’, or ‘If you do so, this will happen to you’, which demonstrates their cultic role, the archaeologists report.

The Hellenistic city of Maresha was one of the period’s melting-pots in the southern Levant where different populations and cultures lived side-by side there as neighbors, all subordinate to the Hellenistic – or Greek – rule. There were Edomites, Phoenicians, Nabateans and Jews, and the different peoples and cultures influenced each other.

According to Eli Eskosido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This fascinating research sheds light on the life and customs in the ancient world and reminds us that people are regular people all over the world. They dream and hope, and notwithstanding the harshness of daily life, they find time for playing and leisure.” 

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