Museum Exhibit

[Page 53] Before Sir Arthur Evans in 1901 found what he called "The Royal Gaming Board", there was no know ledge of Minoan games, just as there was, of course, no developed concept of a Minoan civilisation. There were, however, finds from other areas around the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in Egypt, of game boards, as well as pictorial representations and hieroglyphic texts dealing with games and gaming. These 19th century finds are naturally fundamental if one wants to try to understand the position of knowledge in the days of Arthur Evans. We shall return to them after a brief look at how gaming has been treated since the Middle Ages and how the ancient sources on the topic once again came into focus.

Games and gaming had long been described by various European writers. From the 13th century onwards, we have texts describing contemporary games played in various European countries. The earliest, which was compiled by the direction of King Alfonso X of Castile in 1283, collected [Page 54] information on the games of Spain, and there were soon similar works for England and France. 2 From the centuries that followed, we also have quite a few books on chess. 3 Still, it was not until the 17th century that more modern descrip­tions and manuals of current games, often encyclopaedic in character, appeared. In his A history of board games other than chess, H.J.R. Murray especially mentions two publications, Maison des Jeux academiques (Paris 1657; non vidi) and Charles Cotton, Compleat Gamester (London 1674), which, together with others of the same kind, were fore­runners of many similar works across Europe.4 Soon there­after came the first publication that dealt with games outside of Europe, Thomas Hyde's De Ludis Orientalibus (1694), with its first-hand information on oriental games. Among the descriptions and drawings of many Chinese, Arabic and Jewish games, this book also describes the origins of the different games. There is a short list of Arab and Latin authors who have written about games.

During this whole period, editions of the texts of different ancient authors who discussed or mentioned the games of the Greeks and the Romans, were also available. Some of the best-known literary passages are one by Homer, in which a game is played by the suitors at Ithaca, 5 and two by Plato, one in which Socrates explains how draughts and dice-games were invented in Egypt 6 and another in which parallels are drawn between the natures of different cities and the game of poleis. 7 Aristotle makes similar comparisons in talking about cityless men as isolated gaming pieces in the game of petteia 8 and there are also several other, casual references to games by Greek authors. 9 Roman authors, e.g. Ovid10 and Seneca,11 mention games like tabula and latrunculi. Compared with the passages in Greek literature, these are usually more informative about the construction and rules of the games. 12

Thus far, the short references, in which games are only mentioned in descriptive or narrative texts, are not primarily focused on gaming. There were also longer descriptive accounts of ancient games. Pollux has a section in his Onomasticon in which he deals with the game referred to by So­phocles, which was played on five lines, as well as the game of poleis. 13 R.G. Austin mentions the much later antiquaries Hesychius and Suidas, as well as a long statement made by Eustathius in his Homeric commentaries. The statement is based on the most important (unfortunately lost) of the an­cient manuscripts: Suetonius' book On games.14

This work brings us again to the middle of the 19th century, since it was in 1860 that the German Augustus Reifferscheid collected and published the remaining fragments of Suetonius, including those from the book On games. 15 The publication of this work at this point in time proved unfortunate, since a Byzantine epitome of Suetonius' book was discovered only five years later, in 1865, in a monastery on Mount Athos. 16 Suetonius' work was originally divided into three volumes, one on Greek games and two on Roman. The epitome deals with the rules and origins of and anecdotes on both public and private games. Listed games include dice games (kubeia), pebbles games (petteia), and those played with knuckle-bones (astragaloi).17 It was one of the most frequently cited of Suetonius' works in antiquity 18 and the relationship between him and other ancient writers is a most complicated one.19

If the ancient Greek and Roman texts, including the new finds and publications, formed one part of the growing amount of evidence, the other part -  all the new archaeological material - was accumulating even more rapidly during the 19th century. Especially the excavations and expeditions in Egypt provided many new finds in the area of games and game boards. These were mainly of three kinds: actual game boards, hieroglyphic material, and finally icono­graphic representations, particularly in tomb paintings.

Even though the famous and beautiful game boards of Tut'ankhamun were still to be found, quite a few were discovered during the second half of the 19th century; I have been able to locate about twenty examples found up to 1900. Some of these are only fragments, but there are also whole boards, as well as many gaming pieces - often bought by early collectors. Most of these boards were at the beginning hardly known to anyone other than the few people in direct contact with the excavations or collections. This changed in the seventies and eighties, when some of the best preserved examples were put on display in different exhibitions, such as the one in Manchester in 1887, or at the British Museum and the Louvre, where they could be seen and studied by a wider audience (Figure 1). Connected with these exhibitions, we have short publications and catalogues by some of the leading Egyptologists and archaeologists of the day, for example, Prisse d' Avennes,  Bey and Petrie. 20

[Page 55] Two of the most famous pieces were the so-called Draught boards of Queen Hatasu (=Hatshepsut), one in the Louvre described by Pierret 21 and the other a fragment, together with beautifully carved gaming pieces, at the Manchester exhibition. 22   Early scholarship dealing with the games of Egypt was primarily directed towards the study of hieroglyphic texts. The pioneer was S. Birch, who as early as 1865 wrote about the inscriptions in different Egyptian tombs with texts on senet and other games connected with the gods and the nether world. 23 He compares those with passages in the Greek literature, especially Herodotus, and draws conclusions about their relationship and how they were played. That the focus is almost entirely on the written record and that, as mentioned above, actual boards were still very few can be illustrated by the fact that an English version of the article, printed in 1870, mentions and makes use of only one, recorded, Egyptian game board.24

Finally, we have the iconographical representations of the boards and of people playing games. As a result of K. Lepsius' activity-from the middle of the century onwards ­ drawings of tomb paintings and papyri became available in publications, showing seated Egyptians playing at least two different games. Mythical animals are also shown playing, and sometimes only the game board with its pieces is shown. Some paintings were of special interest, since they were considered to be the oldest representations of games ever, the earliest dating from the fifth dynasty. 25 Birch actually included, and commented upon, some of this pictorial material in his treatment of texts dealing with games.

Egypt, however, was not the only place around the Eastern Mediterranean that provided material on games. In the last decade of the century, finds were made in the Levant and on Cyprus. The Palestine Exploration Fund reported that three slabs inscribed with lines, intended for a game, were found in Tell Zakariya. 26 There were also finds of stones with so-called cup-holes or Schalensteine from Palestine, but these were not at this point discussed in connec­tion with games. 27 At Enkomi on Cyprus, an ivory game board of a common Egyptian type, with 20 squares, was found. 28

So far, we have considered how material, such as new finds, texts and reports, accumulated during the 19th cen­tury. This accumulation of evidence accelerated in the last few decades and led to a second phase of writing, with new monographs and articles dealing with the whole phenom­enon of ancient games, sometimes in a more popular form. There was also a new interest in games from the anthropo­logical and ethnographical points of view. One of the major monographs published before the turn of the century was Richter's Die Spiele der Griechen und Romer (1887), in which a broad approach to games was used, including hunt­ing, the Olympic Games and the play and games of children. The chapter that is perhaps of most importance in comparing them with the earlier games and game boards is the one entitled "Das Knochel und Wiirfelspiel". In his Les jeux des anciens (1873), Becq de Fouquieres compiled Greek and especially Roman games, such as latrunculi or "the game of twelve lines", and tried to explain how they were played. He also included ball games, children's games, and drinking games such as the Greek kottabos. On the other hand, there are no discussions about the games from Egypt or other Bronze Age societies.

The opposite is true for Falkener's Games ancient and oriental and how to play them (1892). This important work describes games from all over Asia and Europe, divided into the categories "chess", "draughts", "backgammon" and "magic squares". Some of the games are introduced with a short history or anecdote, but the main concern is the rules of the different games, as well as examples of how to play them, often with a list of moves resulting in a perfect game. But it is the first part of the book, "The games of the ancient Egyptians", that is most interesting from the present point of view. Here, the author collects and organises all the different kinds of material on ancient Egyptian games, such as [Page 56] senet or tau, and gives suggestions on how to play them. There is also an analysis and reconstruction of Queen Hatasu's draughtboard. Most interesting is the chapter called "Dr. Birch's researches on the games of ancient Egypt". Here, Falkener reprints and comments on letters from Birch. The letters compile and evaluate all kinds of ar­chaeological and literary evidence and also include lists of the available material.

After several hundred years of writing about games in different forms, we now for the first time have authors dealing with the wide concept of gaming from a truly historical point of view. The new field was initiated by Becq de Fou­quieres, Richter and Falkener, all within a period of no more than twenty years.

Similar efforts were made in a few minor works pub­lished around the turn of the century. Das Brettspiel bei den alten Aegyptern by A. Wiederman 29 is one example, and soon we have even more specialised studies, for example, dealing with draughts men only. 30

To study the contemporary games of exotic countries or those of one's own backyard also became popular. Lane re­corded games from his famous travels in Egypt in the first half of the century 31 and in 1894 the traditional games of Great Britain filled two thick volumes of the Dictionary of British folk-lore.> During the same few years in the late nine­ties, Steward Culin produced many books dealing with the games of the world, concentrating mainly on the rules and tactics of the games. 32 These modern games were some­times used as analogies to the ancient ones and as evidence for their reconstruction.33

The use of numerous, global comparisons was widely adopted during the last quarter of the century, and so was the search for "survivals" from earlier stages of develop­ment in the history of mankind. Victorian evolutionism formed the theoretical basis for young sciences, such as ethnology, anthropology and archaeology.34 But soon came modern times, when a different attitude was taken to science. It is sometimes hard to imagine the huge changes that took place during such a long life as that of Arthur Evans (1851-1941), not least in England:

It was the time when professional scholars supplanted Victorian dilettanti. Traditional disciplines changed and new disciplines (including prehistoric archaeology) were introduced. Growing up with Victorian faith in unlimited materialistic progress, that generation witnessed a world war, the collapse of the British Empire, and a technological, social, cultural, and spiritual revo­lution. It was a complicated generation of scientists and spiritu­alists, feminists and nationalists, reformers and reactionaries, Bloomsbury and Boy Scouts. 35

On the other hand, the extensive changes that were to come made the years around the turn of the century the perfect time for new ideas and for fresh approaches in science.

If we sum up the available research done on games and game boards at the time of Evans' first years of excavation at Knossos, there was, on the one hand, a steady accumula­tion throughout the century of hieroglyphic and, later, other archaeological material from Egypt. This accumulation had accelerated in the last two or three decades and at the end of the century there was also material from other Eastern Mediterranean areas, such as Palestine and Cyprus.

On the other hand, we have - across the wine-dark sea, as well as across the Iron Age -  ancient authors describing dif­ferent Greek and Roman games. These works came into focus by way of new interests and new finds in the 19th cen­tury, both of archaeological artefacts and of lost texts.

These two fields, accompanied by a fresh interest in anthropological and ethnographical viewpoints, gave rise to some new studies that aimed at describing the whole phenomenon as such, using all kinds of available material. Many of these writers tried to bridge the two sides and described the Greek and Roman games as being developed from the Egyptian ones. The problem with the wide gap, both in time and in space, was, however, mostly ignored. And even though Plato had already talked about influences reaching Greece via Crete,36 there was not such evidence yet in the area of gaming. The piece in the middle was still missing. But not for long.

Last update January 6, 2010