Some Comments Regarding The Games
Depicted on the Tomb of Mereruka

Paul Brewster

East and West, Rome, 13, (1), 1962, 27-31

North Wall of the Tomb of Mereruka

Detail of scene on north wall of the tomb of Mereruka, Sakarah
Courtesy of the Oriental Insitute, University of Chicago.

[Page 27] The games and pastimes enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians were many and varied, including board-games,1 games of ball,2 wrestling,3 boxing,4 guessing-games resembling the Roman micare digitis and Bucca, Bucca,5 the riding of stick-horses,6 and prototypes of the games known to English-speaking children as "Wring the Dishcloth" and "Sail the Ship".7

One of the most familiar surviving representations of Egyptian games is that in relief on the north wall of the tomb of Mereruka (6th Dynasty. ca. 240 B.C.) one detail of which shows a group of boys or young men engaged in play.8 Of the five games depicted, at least three are still current either in Egypt or in other parts of the world; identification of the others is tentative only.

This section of the relief is in two panels, one above the other. The upper panel contains three groups of players, each group playing a different game; on the lower is depicted the playing of two games (if games they are) by two groups of youths.

Detail of scene on tomb wall

Detail of scene on north wall of Tomb of Mereruka

[Page 28] The group at the upper left consists of four boys, three of whom are standing in a row, each with an arm extended horizontally so as to rest on the shoulder of a neighbor (the center figure, of course, has both arms outstretched). A fourth boy, on all-fours, is trying to walk along the "bridge" thus formed. A somewhat similar game was played at least as recently as the first decade of the present century at Elevara and Yule Island (British New Guinea). Here a number (unspecified) of boys stood very closely together, one in front of the other so as to form a line. Each placed his hands on the shoulders of the boy in front of him, arms and body being flexed. Then another boy was hoisted onto the shoulders of the last in line and must walk to the shoulders of the boy in front, partially supported by two other players, walking on each side of him.9

To the right of the first group are six boys engaged in a tug-of-war, three on a side. The leader of the three on the right is encouraged by his fellows. "Your arm is stronger than his, much! Don't weaken with it!" While their opponents retort: "The group is stronger than you; beat them, comrade!" The position of the contestants is the conventional one.10

The boys composing the third group in the upper panel are playing the very old jumping game Khazza Lawizza, still played by the fellahin (and in almost exactly the same way). The two seated players at the right are holding their feet and hands in the position for the executing of the highest and final jump of the series. The three advancing in single file from the left are about to take their turns in attempting this crucial jump.11 This game illustrates admirably what has been pointed out elsewhere as a disadvantage resulting from the absence of perspective in early Egyptian art.

For instance, aside from the rigid pictures of the dancers and the participants in games, the actual formation of a dance is difficult to determine, and the point of a game sometimes remains in doubt. An example is the scene, (pp. 162-163) showing two seated youths, one above the other, each with legs and arms stretched out before him, the right heel resting on the toes of the left foot, the spread fingers of the right hand resting on those of the left, while three other youths run toward them. We know that the seated youths are to be understood as confronting each other, their stretched legs and arms forming a hurdle over which the others are to jump. But the mode of drawing employed by the artist did not lend itself to depicting the actual arrangement; a desire to economize space may also have played a part in leading him to place the seated youths one above the other instead of facing each other.12

Tomb of Ptah-hotep

High Jump: Tomb of Ptah-hotep at Sakkarah, Fifth Dynasty.

A good description of the present-day manner of playing the game is that given by Hamed Ammar, which I quote in its entirety:

Another hopping game ... is played by three boys at least. Two boys sit facing each other, their legs extended so that their feet touch each other, the legs forming a diamond shape. The third boy holds his right leg behind with his hand as in the "Shad" game. Then follows a series of hopping feats of ever-increasing difficulty, where the two boys make him hop over them higher and wider at every turn. In hopping he must not touch any part of them with his foot or leg. The penalty is that he lies prone between their legs and is squeezed. From this the game has derived its name Kammatat "to be squeezed". To release him the victim must confess "he is woman" or say that "he is in God's shelter" (a woman's phrase). Otherwise he has to push up the legs of the "squeezers" and thus by loosening them he can escape.13

This game is today very popular among Burmese children, girls as well as boys. In the most common form of the modern Burmese counterpart, two players sit on the ground facing each other and close enough for each to put the soles of his feet against those of the other and to touch the tips of his outstretched fingers with his own. The first jump is over the feet, placed sole to sole and with heels resting on the ground. Each of the seated players now rests one foot on top of the other (heel on toes), the soles of both feet pressed against those of the boy opposite, and the other players jump as before. The height is then further increased by the width of one outspread hand and later by that of both.

A player failing anyone of these jumps is forced to leave the game. In the event that more than one has performed successfully all four jumps, the seated players spread their legs wide apart with opposite feet touching, and the others execute a series of hops into [Page 29] and out of the touching and the others execute a series of hops into and out of the diamond that is formed. A player touching a leg or a foot or failing to make a jump is disqualified. When only one contestant remains, he is acclaimed the winner.14

What activity the players at the left end of the lower panel are about to engage in is difficult, if not impossible to determine. It would seem however, that the three players preceding and the three following the central figure are members of the same group and that the central figure is their captive, being conducted to prison or execution. The threatening gestures of the escort, particularly of two of the number, and the helpless resignation of the captive lend weight to such an interpretation. All indications seem to point to the fact that the game is one in which two groups contend (perhaps in a mimic war) and that the captured "warrior" (?) is being led away to his fate, a dire one if the attitude of his captors is any index. Montet (Les scenes ..p. 370) cites this as one of the rougher games and interprets the scene as meaning that the six are preparing to beat the bound player with the rods they carry. He writes:

Les divertissements n'etaient pas exempts d'une certaine brutalité. Un garcon agenouille recoit de ses camarades des coups de poing et des coups de pied. Un autre, les mains liees, est entoure par six de ses rivaux armes de batons terminus par des mains et des panaches de roseau, dont on se sert, je le cruins, pour le frapper".

[Translation into English: The game is not devoid of a certain degree of brutality; a boy kneeling receives punches and kicks from his comrades. Another with his hands tied, is surrounded by six of his rivals who are armed with sticks and plumes of grass in their hands. These are used to strike a captured boy.]

[Page 30] The group at the extreme right on the lower panel consists of five (six?) figures. The two at the left are standing, arms about each other's shoulders, and heads turned to the left. The right arm of the one on the extreme left hangs at his side; the left arm of his partner is bent at a 90" angle and the hand is clenched. On the right are two other players, their backs to the observer, and their faces turned toward the two on the left. As in the case of the latter, one player stands slightly behind the other. There is, however, a difference in the position of the arms. Here, the left arm of the player on the extreme right passes in front of his companion (apparently to brace him) at about waist level; the right hangs loosely at his side. The second player of the right hand pair stands in the same position as the nearer of the two on the left except that his right arm passes in front of his companion's body, the hand grasping the latter's right shoulder. The left leg of each of the outer figures is extended full length and the foot braced against that of his opponent. The inner figures have the left legs bent and (apparently) the feet either braced against each other or hooked together. It is impossible to tell which, since the feet are hidden by a kneeling figure in the foreground. This figure is resting on the right knee, the left leg extended but with knee bent. The trunk is bent slightly forward; the head tilted back and turned in the direction of the two players on the left. The left arm is bent, the hand apparently resting on the chest. The right is bent at a 90° angle, the forearm vertical and fingers extended together with backs uppermost.

I must confess that so far I have been unable to identify this game. It would seem to be a form of wrestling in which no use is made of the arms and the objective is merely to throw the opponent off balance by pushing or pulling with the feet. However, neither Wilsdorf nor any other author consulted describes a form even remotely resembling this, nor have I been able to find a drawing or diagram illustrative of the posture in which these contestants are depicted. There are in other parts of the world certain games in which the attempt to make an opponent lose his equilibrium is a prominent feature, but none is sufficiently analogous to justify its introduction here.

Hyroglifsics from Tomb wall


  1. The early Egyptians greatly enjoyed the playing of various boardgames as do their modern descendents. There were doubtless many of these, but only a few have been positively identified. Most of our knowledge of them is derived from paintings which began to appear on the walls of burial-chambers and temples during the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2500-2400 B. C.). Some of these not only depicted persons playing the games but also added descriptive text. Of these paintings, one of the oldest is that in the tomb of Ra-sheps (Rashepses) which shows two different games. Sen't (Senat) and Han, in progress. Sen't is also one of the two games pictured in a Twelfth Dynasty (2000-1780 B, c.) tomb at Benihassan; the second has been tentatively identified as T'au. Much valuable material on the subject of Egyptian board-games is to be found in A. Wiedemann, Das alte Agypten (Heidelberg, 1920), p. 378; the same author's "Das Spiel im alten Agypten", Zeitschrift des Vereins für rheinische Volkskunde, IX, 161 ff.; J.G. Wilkinson. Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (ed. Birch), London. 1878. II. 54 ff.; R. Ghirshman, Fouilles de Sialk, II (Serie Archéologique. V, Musée du Louvre, Departement des Antiquités Orientales), Paris, 1939, pp. 42.44; Pierre Montet, "Le jeu du serpent", Chronique d' Egypte, XXX (1955), 189. 197; G. J. Gadd, "An Egyptian Game in Assyria", Iraq, I, 45 ff.; H.I.R. Murray, A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess (Oxford, 19.52), p. 13 f.; E. Falkener, Games Ancient and Oriental (London. 1892); W. 1. Nash, "Ancient Egyptian Draughtsboards and Draughtsmen", Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, XXIV (1902), 31 f.; Journal of Hellenic Studies. XVI (1896), 288; R.C. Bell, Board and Table Games (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 20 and passim; Petrie and Brunton, Sedment I (pl. XXII); Lord Carnarvon and H. Carter, Five Years' Exploration at Thebes (fig. H); H. Ranke, Das altägyptische Schlangenspiel (Heidelberg, 1920); C. L. Woolley, The Royal Cemetery (Ur Excavations, II), London, 1934, pls. 95-98; Max Pieper, Das Brettspiel der alten Aegypter (Berlin. 1901), p. 7. Fig. 5B; Samuel Birch, "Rhampsinitus and the Game of Draughts", Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, Second Series IX (1870), 256-268; Alfred Wiedemann, "Das Brettspiel bei den alten Aegyptern", Actes du 10 Congres des Orientalistes (Leiden, 1897), pp. 37-61.
  2. These "games" of ball appear to have been of the simplest kind , consisting for the most part in one player's tossing up a single ball and catching or of two or more players throwing it back and forth between themselves. Sometimes however, more than one ball was used, so that the catching it became a sort of juggling and required considerable skill. Perhaps the best representations of the various forms of ballplay are those from Beni Hassan. Here is depicted also the tossing back and forth of one or more balls between two girls each of whom is seated on the back of a comrade. In some scenes the girls are astride their "mounts"; in others they are held on the hips of the latter, who use an arm each to prevent their falling. See A. Erman and H. Ranke, Agypten und ägyptisches Leben im Altertum (Tübingen, 1923), p. 279, fig. 119; Siegfried Meendner, Das Ballspiel im Leben der Völker (Münster, 1956), pl. VI. On the general subject of riding-games (including those involving ball play), see Carl Diem, Asiatische Reiterspiele, Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte der Völker (Berlin, 1941), and Erich Mindt, "Mädchen Reiterballspiele, Tönze und Sonstiges vorn ägyptischen Sport", Der Erdball, 1 (1926-1927). 29-32. The game of ball was not confined to children or to either sex (Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 428). However, in those which consisted in several players tossing the ball to one another, the participants seem to have been girls. With apparently, the rhythmic character in mind, Mendner (p. 43) suggests that such games may have been accompanied by music and singing. On the possible ceremonial aspects of ancient Egyptian ballplay, see Erwin Mehl, "Stamm die modernen Ballspiele von einem Fruchtharkeits-Brauch ab?" Die Leibeserziehung, VI (1953), 8 ff., and Robert W. Henderson, Ball, Bat, and Bishop, The Origin of Ball Games, (New York, 1917). The earliest written mention appears in the Pyramid text of 2500 B.C.; see K. Sethe, Die altägyptischen Pyramidentexte (Leipzig, 1908), p. 279 (d).
  3. The best general treatment of this subject is that in Helmut Wilsdorf, Ringkampf im alten Agypten (Würsburg, 1939), which is profusely illustrated with drawings showing [Page 31] the various holds employed. Wilkinson writes (pp. 436-437): "Wrestling was a favorite amusement, and the paintings of the grottoes of Beni Hassan present all the varied aptitudes and modes of attack and defense of which it is susceptible. And. in order to enable the spectator more readily to the positron of the limbs of each combatant, the artist has availed himself of a dark and light colour, and even ventured to introduce alternately a black and red figure. It is probable that, like the Greeks, they anointed the body with oil… and they were entirely naked, with the exception of a girdle, apparently of leathern thongs. The two combatants generally approached each other, holding their arms in an inclined position before the body; and each endeavored to seize his adversary in the manner best suited to his mode of attack. It was allowable to take hold of any part of the body, the head, neck, or legs; and the struggle was frequently continued on the ground, after one or both had fallen; a mode of wrestling common also to the Greeks, by whom it was denominated." When these and other contests (e.g. single-stick) were ceremonial in character, as were those held before a shrine of the deified ruler Tuthmosis III in the Nineteenth Dynasty (depicted on Theban tomb 19), the threats, challenges, and expressions of triumph of the contestants were in standardized forms of speech appropriate to the occasion. See on this point, John A. Wilson, "Ceremonial Games of the New Kingdom", Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, XVI I 2 (1931), 213. Many of the holds employed by these early Egyptian wrestlers are familiar to us today: "body hold", "reverse body hold", "hiplock", "chancery hold", "strangle hold", "flying mare", etc.
  4. The evidence for boxing as an indigenous Egyptian sport is, it must be admitted, scanty and far from conclusive. If the drawing from 'Amarna (Wilson, loc. cit, p. 220, fig.6) really represents two boxers, this would be substantial proof , since the drawing antedates Alexander's conquests by more than a thousand years. However, such identification is open to question. Wilson calls attention to another example illustrated in Zeitshr. f. äg. Spr, LVII, 87, but is careful to point out that this may indicate Greek or Roman influence.
  5. For a brief description of the former, see Wilkinson, op. tit., p. 55; the latter is illustrated in Erman-Ranke, op. cit. p. 290, fig. 129. Although it is not identified here as Bucca Bucca but is called simply an "unerklartes Spiel des m. R," and the author cautiously adds "Vielleicht musste der Knicende erraten, wer gerade auf ihn schlug", there can be no doubt as to its identity.
  6. Other amusements of the children include playing with dolls, hand-clapping (Falkener, op. cit., p. 49, Fig. 68), and leapfrog. A limestone statuette from Gizah of boy and a girl playing leapfrog is among the holdings of The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.
  7. See Pierre Montet, Les scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'ancien Empire (Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Strasbourg, fase. 24), Strasbourg, 1925, p. 371. The second and more complicated of the two is thus described: "Deux jeunes filles se piaent dos à dos et allongent les bras à droite et à gauche. Deux autres jeunes filles saississent leurs mains et laissent leufs corps raidis se balancer dans le vide entre leurs talons qui sont réunis contre les pieds de leurs deux camarades et leufs bras tendus. Puis les deux fillettes placees dos à dos mattaient à tourner et tout tournait avec ells." On the wall of the tomb of Ptah-hotep the same pastime is being engaged in by boys. In the form in which I know it, there are only two participants, usually small girls. Each holding both hands of the other, they brace their feet together, lean back until the arms are parallel with the ground, and taking very short steps, whirl around rapidly until they tire or fall over from dizziness.
  8. The Sakkarah Expedition, The Mastaba of Mereruka (Oriental Institute Publications, XXXIX), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938, Part I, p. 86; Part II. pls. 162, 163 (detail of 162), 164, 165 (detail of 164). Montet has treated this relief in Les scènes …, p. 370 f. See also Quibell, The Ramesseum and the Tomb of Ptah-Hotep (1898). p. 33. pl. XXXIII.
  9. A. C. Haddon, "Notes on Children's Games in British New Guinea", Journal of the Royal Anthropological lnstitute, XXXVIII (1908), 291. Although there is no explicit statement on the point, the fact that the walking player required support suggests that he was in an erect position.
  10. See also Montet, Les scènes …, p. 369. Hamed Ammar gives the following description of a modern form of the contest in his Growing Up in an Egyptian, Village: Sliwa, Province of Aswan (London, 1954), p. 147: "The game of 'Drag him, bring him along' is an interesting game... The boys are divided into two teams of equal numbers, and face each other on either side of a line drawn on the ground. Each boy grasps his opposite number by his right hand, across the line. The aim is to pull the opponent over the line of demarcation towards one's own side. Directly one member has done this, two boys, one from each side, are chosen to spit on the sand, and the loser, bending over with his hands on the ground, is slapped on the buttocks by all members of the other side. This continues until the two boys declare that the spit has gone dry. If, however, the victim wishes to curtail his punishment he must say "I am a woman", whereupon the beating ceases and the teams line up again and resume the struggle. A confession of 'womanhood ' by a boy of one side is a point scored for the other." The Egyptian game appears to have been merely a trial of strength and not as in some other cultures, a contest with religious or magical implications.
  11. The Ptah-hotep representation has two seated figures but only one jumper.
  12. The Mastaba of Mereruka, Part I (Introduction p.15).
  13. Op. cit., pp. 152-153.
  14. See Montet, Les scènes …, p. 369; Walter Wreszinski, Atlas zur altägyptishen Kulturgeschichte, III (l936), 25, 42; Zaki Saad, Khazza Lawizza (Service des Antiquitiés Annales, 37), Le Caire, 1937, pp. 212-218; and my "The Egyptian Game Khazza Lawizza and Its Burmese Counterpart", forthcoming in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie. For the Ptah-hotep relief, see N. de Garis Davies, The Mastaba of Ptah-hotep and Akhethetep at Soqqarah (Publications of the Archaeological Survey of Egypt, VIII, 1897), I, 23. A brief but interesting article on the game is Dows Dunham and E. S. Eaton, "Two Parallels to Ancient Egyptian Scenes", Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin XXXV (Boston, 1937), 50-55, which contains drawings of the Ptah-hotep and Mereruka reliefs and a photograph of modern Arab boys playing the game in Trans-Jordania, the latter reprinted from the National Geographic Magazine, LXXI, 1 (January, 1931), 62.
  15. The solitary standing figure is, I am assuming, a member of the group. He stands with one leg advanced, left, arm slightly bent and hanging at his side, right arm extended slightly above the horizontal, hand open with palm down and fingers together. He faces the front, but his head is turned to the right. If this scene represents, as it seems to do, some form of wrestling, perhaps his role is that of umpire.

Last update August 8, 2010