Ashanti Sculpture

Murray's mid-century A history of board games other than chess not only summarised the previous period but also used some methods and approaches that were to become popular in later studies. The classification of games into groups and subgroups and connections between comparable games became popular, and so did the systematic use of different kinds of sources and widespread analogies. His work has been one of the most frequently cited ever since.

If we move from this wide perspective and down to the situation on Crete, the period was well set up to be the time for fresh analysis of both old and new archaeological material and for an evaluation and recapitulation of Evans' finds and conclusions. As we shall see, this never happened.

The research of the period shows a wider range of approaches than ever before and, because of this growing diversity, the discussion will, unlike the discussions emerging from the other two vantage points, be divided. First, we shall take a look at what material was chosen, and how this material was collected, studied and presented. This will be done by comparing the different types of works that dominate the period and by outlining their characteristics. Then we shall examine some theoretical and methodological tendencies and see what new kinds of questions were asked. In surveying the research from these two sides, examples of the most important scholars and their publications will be presented.

Organising and describing large bodies of material has been a popular task during the last five decades, either by authors collecting the material in overarching monographs or by many scholars by cooperating in symposium volumes or other collections of papers. The tradition of working on board games from a worldwide perspective was carried on from Murray by RC. Bell, who in 1960 presented his Board and table games from many civilizations. He divided the games of the world into the same categories as many others - race, war, hunting games and so on - and used these categories as the basis for the study rather than looking at different areas or time-periods. The purpose was to describe the games and how they were played, rather than giving, more than very briefly, facts about their history, development or relations. As in many previous works, most of the games with uncertain functions were given "suggested rules". 78

A specific culture or geographical area as a framework for the material has been used by authors such as U. Hiibner and W. Decker in more recent studies. Hiibner presents a thorough analysis and description of the games of Palestine, 79 [Page 61] while Decker works in a similar way with the material from ancient Egypt. 80 Decker is, however, wider in his approach and describes many different activities. Sport is in focus, but it also includes games, and even such activities as hunting and acrobatics.

All of antiquity, more than an area or a single culture, is treated in V. Olivova's Sport and games in the ancient world (1984). In this work, the term "games" is used with reference to sport, for example, "Olympic Games", rather than to board games etc. Only in a few passages and references does the author touch the field of game and game boards relevant to this discussion. The opposite is true for Spiel und Spielzeug in der Antike (1998; orig. ed. Giochi e giocattoli nell' antichita, 1997) by M. Fitta. This volume is divided into two parts, games for children and games for adults, and most of the latter is devoted to board games. The author presents these games according to their origin in three chapters dealing with the Orient and Egypt, Greece, and finally Rome. He gives a good overview of different games and includes many high-class photographs and drawings that in themselves give valuable information. The text is rather a presentation than a scholarly analysis of the games and their relations, even though the notes give many important sources. Neither the Kgb nor any other Minoan material is considered.

A work that, on the contrary, is fully scholarly is S. Laser's volume of Archaeologia Homerica entitled Sport und Spiel. 81 Both sport and game boards are considered, and literary and archaeological evidences are used side by side. Material from the Archaic and Classical periods of Greece are often compared with older material, for example, from the Bronze Age Aegean or, perhaps most of all, from ancient Egypt. These analogies are often illustrated by well-chosen, iconographical items from different epochs, compared side by side. The volume includes contributions from H.G. Buchholz, for example, a section on "Brettspielende Helden",82 as well as extensive references and a lengthy bibliography.

Besides these broadly based collections of material, there are also many minor works in the symposium volumes and collections of papers that have become increasingly frequent during the period. In the last decade, a couple of exhibitions and conferences dealing with games and game boards have been held. From an exhibition in 1991-92 at the Musee d' Archeologie Mectiterraneenne in Marseilles, there is a catalogue volume with studies on games, including a section on board games.83 There is a beautiful placing together of many ancient games, mainly from Egypt, Greece and Rome, but also with thematic articles on, for instance, dice and knuckle-bones.

The International Institute for Asian Studies has collected papers on games in its working-papers series, which is not at all restricted to the Asian perspective.84 Under the heading "Archaeology and board games", one can find contributions by I. Finkel about divination and the Royal game of Ur,85 and by U. Schadler on Roman games.86 The collection is full of interesting approaches to game research and exemplifies many modern ways of treating method and theory in relation to the subject. I shall return to this discussion soon. Neither of these publications involves any material on gaming in the Aegean Bronze Age. Another colloquium on board games was held at the British Museum in 1990. The title was "Board games in perspective" and a publication with Finkel as editor is under way.

Finally, in the last few years, a new forum for discussions about games has been created by the new Italian journal Ludica. Annali di storia e civilta del gioco (1995-). In it, all possible aspects of games and gaming from all over the world, as well as from different historical periods, are ventilated. The first issues also include a thematic part devoted to a particular area in the study of games.87

Leaving the overarching works, there were, after 1950, more scholars specialising and dealing in depth with one particular game or a particular group of material from the cultures around the Eastern Mediterranean. An example was Schadler's 'Spielen mit Astragalen' in which a wide range of information was used on a specific problem.88 Another group of material, perhaps the most important one from the Minoan perspective, which came into focus at various localities, was the so-called cup-holes or cup-marks. They were treated as a separate topic already in the fifties by H. van Effenterre, who argued that they were probably intended for some kind of game.89 In the seventies, on Cyprus, S. Swiny investigated and analysed many of these holes in both excavation publications and preliminary reports. He was convinced that they served a religious purpose or that they could perhaps be divided into two groups representing either gaming or libation functions. He used the term "offering tables", and for comparisons he also included a list of short descriptions of the cup-holes on Crete. 90 Later, in 1980, he altered his point of view and saw them as "gaming stones" and compared them with Egyptian games such as mehen and senet.91 The two different opinions about their function are clearly seen in the division between the [Page 62] scholars, as listed by Swiny:92 Evans, van Effenterre and Hood speak in favour of games, Chapoutier, Demargne, Nilsson, Platon, Alexiou and Renfrew talk in terms of libations or offering tables and, finally, scholars like Warren suggest that different stones need to be interpreted in different ways.

Swiny's task was carried on by H.-G. Buchholz, both on Cyprus itself 93 and within a wider geographical context, including Anatolia and Greece.94 In the latter study, he also presented a catalogue with some similar Minoan material. Cup-holes from many other areas and periods have also received attention during the last fifty years,95 but, if we concentrate on Crete, it is mainly to S. Hood and his work that we must turn. In the last two decades, he has presented and analysed cup-marks from all over Crete. They have been divided into three groups, but no full catalogue has been produced, even though he presents photographs of many of them. One of the groups, the one with an irregular pattern of holes, is, according to his article in 1995, more than the others connected with religious practice. The cup-marks are also used in an important part of his discussion on the cultural contacts and influences of the region.96 The same material is presented in quite a contrasting way by E. Karagianni, who organises it in a strict catalogue but sees the cup-holes as a type of kemoi or libation tables and therefore treats them together with libation vessels. 97 Cup-holes were also mentioned briefly, as possible evidence of gaming, in some excavation publications in the period.98

The most obvious of the Minoan game-related artefacts, the beautiful game board from Knossos itself, was also the topic of a small, specialised study. In a two-page, archaeological note by R. Brumbaugh entitled 'The Knossos game board', the board is compared with the famous royal game board from Ur. The squares of the two boards are numbered and their internal arrangement led him to conclude that they belonged to the same family of board games, even though the Kgb was a simplified version.99

Apart from these, no work of a specialised character has been done on the Aegean material. If one wants to find an extensive scholarly treatment of a specific problem or game, one has to look towards Egypt. The finest example is probably Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Agypten (1979) by E. Pusch. Here, we have a revision of a dissertation in two volumes, collecting all possible evidence of the thirty-square game, or senet, of ancient Egypt. Most of the work consists of a catalogue, but there are also analysing and concluding parts. A major work like this is truly a rare thing in the field of ancient games.

If we sum up what has been written since the middle of the century, we have some, mostly short, contributions on the games of Egypt and the Orient and a few dealing with classical Greece and Rome. There are also, especially towards the end of the period, many monographs of varying quality describing the whole phenomenon of gaming. There has been no place for the Minoan material in these over­arching volumes or at the symposiums. The same is true for the specialised articles, with one exception - the cup-holes. All this is, of course, partly due to the lack of new material, but there are some new finds, also apart from the cup-holes.

Dice, markers and bricks possibly connected with gaming have been found at sites such as Phaistos, Khania and Myrtos, and they are mentioned in the publications.100 Even more striking is the absence of re-investigations of the old material and of the previous conclusions. To illustrate the situation, it is enough once again to recall Evans' judgment of the Kgb and to view it from the turn of the millennium: The "most magnificent relic discovered in the whole course of the excavation" has received only two pages of scholarly treatment in seventy years.101

So far, in describing the way in which the material was chosen and presented, I have been concentrating on what has been done and what has not. Let me end by looking at how it was done or, in other words; what new theories and methods were used during the period? Some of the trends, such as world-wide-game publications etc., have already been discussed, but some new approaches, especially in studies from the second half of the period, deserve to be mentioned. Even though they do not treat the Minoan material, they may provide methodological inspiration in that area in the future.

Analysing cultural contacts and diffusion in tracing the origins and development of board games has become more popular the last two or three decades. Scholars of earlier periods sometimes compared games widely across time and space when they found likely matches. Modern writers comparing games from different places operate in a much more critical way and discuss the contexts of the material more carefully. Probable relations are considered and so are the connections needed for a specific influence.102

The anti-diffusionism inspired by the so-called New Archaeology of the seventies has left few marks on later studies dealing with games. Even when these general theories were esteemed, influences between the games of different areas were recognised:

Renfrew believes, and successfully proves, that the emergence of civilisation in the Aegean was an internal affair. The independent appearance of stones with running spirals in Cyprus cannot, however, be fortuitous since it is known that trading contacts did exist between the Island and the Aegean...103

[Page 63] It seems as if hard facts and actual examples in some of these cases were allowed to overrule the wider theoretical constructions.

Combining the study of games with a wider discussion on cultural influences was popular to various degrees among most of the authors of the period. Some scholars mentioned only similarities between games, while others dealt with the problem more thoroughly. The latter can be found in  J. Mouratidis' 'Are there Minoan influences on Mycenaean sports, games and dances?', which has cultural contacts and influences between games as its main theme.104 There are even studies, for example, 'Board games in the Eastern Mediterranean: some aspects of cultural interrelations' by P. Bielinski and P. Taracha, that use games as a medium or an instrument in a general discussion on diffusion and interaction between cultures.105

Within the field of anthropology, research on games has been increasingly popular during the period, perhaps most of all in works concerning African cultures (Figure 5). Because of anthropology's long tradition of cross-cultural comparisons, this is an important source of inspiration also for archaeologists and historians.106 An example of the methodological interaction between the disciplines can be seen in a study by I. Finkel on Tibetan dice games. In this work, a scholar with a classical and archaeological background uses mostly anthropological methods but includes historical references as well in the analysis.107

Another theoretical topic that once again interested researchers was the classification of games. They were divided into families and their relations were analysed by Murray at the start of the period and his categories have been used by many since. But lately new efforts have been made, most importantly by A. de Voogt, to modernise the classification and to evaluate Murray and Bell. The groups of games used in the old classifications were considered as poorly defined and were criticised for not giving good grounds for deciding why a certain game should belong to a certain group. Systematic theoretical principles were used by de Voogt to distinguish the classes and subclasses, and the terminology was carefully chosen and explained in a way not seen before.108

Some authors have chosen to concentrate on the religious and magical aspects of gaming and game boards. Besides the divided opinion on the use of cup-holes mentioned above, and of the well-known religious function of some of the Egyptian games, there are new theories connecting games with fortune-telling and divination,109 or discussions of influences and interactions between the activities involved in games, play and ritual.110

The recent conference proceedings from the International Institute for Asian Studies, already mentioned a few times, are in my opinion the best collection using new methodological approaches and they provide more examples. For instance, one part of the volume is entitled "Philosophy and board games" and questions are asked about human psychology and the earliest invention of board games.111  Included are also, even further away from the archaeological discussion but still theoretically inspiring, contributions from the growing fields of game theory and game-related computer science.112

So where are we heading? If one looks at the general picture of the research on gaming, it is inspiring to see how the interest in board games has grown rapidly during the last few decades. The number of new papers has clearly increased over the last 15-20 years. And the process is accelerating - a look at my bibliography for 1950-2000 will show that almost half of the entries are from the nineties. Equally inspiring are the new theoretical and methodological approaches presented in the last few years, many of which have originated in neighbouring disciplines, that, it is to be hoped, will influence the field of archaeology.

If the number of short works has increased, the opposite is true for the monographs - there are very few at all from the period. Perhaps this lack of major works is part of a trend that exists also in other disciplines. The tendency towards greater specialisation is probably one of the reasons why attending conferences, writing articles and giving papers may be taking up a larger proportion of the scholars' time than before. But there is, indeed, in my opinion a need for thorough investigations that focus on a certain problem or a specific material. It is hard to see the present use of yet another book summarising the "ancient board games".

[Page 64] In the Minoan field, we not only lack the monographs, but we do not have many shorter studies either. I hope that this will change and that archaeological material from Crete will be included in the cross-cultural collections of papers and articles of the future. The present article is part of my thesis entitled Minoan games and game boards. In my forthcoming work, I shall try to evaluate both the old finds and the conclusions and to collect and analyse the sporadic new evidence from around the island. The study of game-related influences between Crete and the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean will be important. Sophisticated, cross-cultural investigations comparing material from other civilisations may provide inspiration in re-examining the Minoan material and in trying to give a more precise picture of the "stepping-stones" and "influences" so often discussed.

Looking back from the three viewpoints, in 1900, 1950 and 2000, has, I hope, shown some of the different directions and trends that the research has followed. Both the purposes and the methods have changed substantially, and so have the forms of publication. The three vantage points are also good positions from which to describe the work of Sir Arthur Evans on Crete. From the first of these, we surveyed the 19th century background and Evans' possible sources of inspiration and the available information at the time of his discoveries. From the second one, we examined his own achievements and theories, and finally, from the present point, how his work has - or rather has not-been judged and carried on.

Last update January 6, 2010