Window into the Bible
A Time for Fun & Games
Throughout the Biblical world, archaeologists have uncovered a large number of ancient games. Many of these are board games, but others like dice and knucklebones (image right) also seem to have been quite common. Game boards have ranged from intricately crafted pieces made from the most luxurious of materials to those roughly scratched into the paving stones of ancient streets. There were games of chance, strategy games, war games and others.
One amazing game discovered in the early 1900s came from Ur, the hometown of the patriarch Abraham. It was found in the tomb of a queen called Puabi who lived about 4600 years ago (about 600 years before Abraham). The board was made from wood inlaid with an expensive blue stone called lapis lazuli, red limestone and shell. From what is known about this and similar games, it appears the object was to race the game pieces around the board. The winner was probably the first person to clear their side of the board. If you are interested, you can play the Royal Game of Ur online at the British Museum at:
A very similar game to the game of Ur was known as Senet. Many well preserved Senet boards have been discovered in Egyptian tombs where the dry air has prevented their deterioration. Four Senet game boards were found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen (one in image right), including one made from ebony and ivory which stood on a sled.
Senet involved a mix of strategy and luck. The Egyptian name for the game literally means the ‘game of passing’. A Senet game set consisted of the game board, two distinctive sets of game pieces and four throwing sticks. The throwing sticks were tossed to determine the number of squares a player could move. The object of this game was to try and overtake your opponent’s game pieces and be the first to remove all your pieces from the board. The strategy element came into play when one’s game pieces were positioned in such a way that your opponent was unable to overtake. If you would like to try your hand at Senet, bring a friend to Bibleworld and have a go on our Senet board.
Both the royal game of Ur and Senet are examples of games where scattered evidence has allowed scholars to work out some of the rules of play. However, there are many games and gaming pieces discovered in archaeological excavations where there is no evidence at all on how they were played. An example is the game Mehen (image right), again from Egypt. The game board is created in the form of a coiled snake. Could this be the predecessor of our very familiar snakes and ladders?
Several game boards have also been discovered in the land of Israel. The board to the left was discovered in the ruins of Megiddo. It is made from ivory and gold and was used by people during the time of Israel’s judges, about 1300-1200 BC. People don’t even know what this game was called. Some have called it Dogs and Jackals based on a similar game where the game pieces took the form of dogs and jackals (image below left). The one thing in common between this game and many other games discovered is that they all have 58 holes. For that reason the most common name given to these games is the ‘Game of 58 holes’. A couple more of these game boards can be seen below.
Can you remember the last time you pulled out the Monopoly board? Suddenly that competitive streak grabs hold, and all you want to do is win. Didn’t like Monopoly! Then how about Chess, Backgammon, Snakes and Ladders, Risk, Yahtzee or one of the other dozens of games we are familiar with. Chances are that many people in the Biblical world would have had a very similar experience.
People in the ancient world seemed to have loved playing games so much that when they didn’t have their game boards with them, they would improvise. Scratched into the paving stones of Jerusalem’s old city, one can see a number of ancient Roman games. The game depicted to the left is a Roman game that today people call ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ or ‘the Mill Game’.
During Roman times, there was one gaming item that was very popular, and is still very familiar to us today - dice. Dice could be used for many things. They could be used to determine moves on a game board. They may have been used as a game of chance. One thing they were definitely used for was gambling. In fact, in the Gospels we read of some Roman soldiers even gambling for Jesus’ clothes at the foot of the cross. It is quite likely that they were gambling using dice (Matt 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:24). The 1st century dice in the image to the right was discovered in Jerusalem and is on display at Bibleworld.
Bibleworld Museum & Discovery Centre: Roman dice.
Ross and Sarah Nightingale images: Knucklebones (Louvre Museum, Paris); Royal Game of Ur (British Museum, London); Senet Game (Metropolitan Museum, New York); Mehen Game (Oriental Institute, Chicago); Ivory and Gold 58 holes (Oriental Institute, Chicago); Hippo 58 holes (Louvre
People in the Roman world also developed accessories to accompany their dice. The contraption to the left is a Roman dice tumbler. It may have been a way of stopping people cheating when throwing the dice. Sometimes the gaming pieces themselves were modified. Some dice, discovered at Pompeii, were craftily weighted to assist cheating. Yes! It seems some Romans at least were pretty skilled at cheating. A Roman wall painting similar to the one shown below has the following commentary: Player 1: “I’m out” Player 2: “But it’s not a three, it’s a two” Player 1: “You hurt me friend, it’s a three” Player 2: “Cheaters like you should get hurt”. So, the next time you are playing Monopoly and someone starts accusing someone else of cheating, remember that you are part of a long tradition, doing what people have done for many, many years…
Museum, Paris); 58 holes (Louvre Museum, Paris); 58 holes (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Scratched game (Jerusalem); Dice tumbler, (Limesmuseum, Aalen).
Wikipedia images: Game board from Tutankhamun’s tomb; Roman wall painting of men playing dice.
Article provided by Bibleworld Museum & Discovery Centre, Rotorua, New Zealand. Please do not reproduce without permission. www.bibleworld.org.nz.