BMCR 2005.11.11

Minoan Games and Game Boards

, Minoan games and game boards. Lund: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University, 2005. 359 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9162864475

This book is the doctoral thesis of Niklas Hillbom (hereafter referred to as H) and is essentially four works previously published or accepted for publication. What has been added are a table of contents, a three-page introduction and a 13 page conclusion. As each section really stands on its own, I shall discuss each of the five sections separately and then comment on the book as a whole. First, some introductory remarks:

The stated purpose of the book is “to collect, present and analyse all kinds of archaeological material from Bronze Age Crete that could possibly be connected with games and gaming.” And it is this purpose by which the book is to be judged.

I was concerned when I noticed that the four previously published sections are kept virtually in the same state as when they were published, to the extent that the original acknowledgements and even the footnote concerning abbreviations are retained at the beginning of each chapter. The only material which has not been or is not about to be published is the 3-page introduction and the 13-page conclusion. This gives the book a patched together feel which could have been avoided with a relatively small amount of synthesis. On the other hand, the separate bibliographies at the end of each chapter make good sense since the chapters are quite different. There are also many very good photos which are an excellent help to the reader.

Part A (N. Hillbom, “Minoan and Eastern Mediterranean games and game boards: a history of research”, OpAth 25-26, 2000-2001, 53-65.)

This section serves as a short introduction to the book. It is a good solid description of the history of the research into Minoan games, with the work of Sir Arthur Evans serving as the focal point. The principal observation is that little work has been done despite the fact that a game board found in Knossos was and is considered one of the most important finds from the excavation. On the other hand, methodological approaches have been established in the past 30 years which are valuable to the study of Minoan board games. This section is quite important to the work as a whole since H corrects a number of conclusions about some of the specific finds he describes.

Part B (N. Hillbom, “For games or for gods? An investigation of Minoan cup-holes” (SIMA, 132), Savedalen 2003.)

This second chapter is devoted to a systematic cataloguing and analysis of cup-hole stones with holes cut into them in some sort of design. H begins with an outline of previous research, details his methodological approach and then analyzes his database of ‘cup-holes’. The main thrust of this chapter, reflected in the title, is to argue that many cup-holes, which were previously thought to have a religious purpose (mainly for libations) are much more likely to have fulfilled a gaming function. A good deal of this chapter is taken up in presenting the databases which should be useful to scholars. One small point I might bring up is the use of term “starting-hole” to denote a larger or deeper hole in a circuit of holes. This term, which strongly suggests gaming, is established in a list of terminology (p. 47) even before the discussion as to whether these cup-holes had a gaming purpose or not has begun. The term may be a convenient one, but it does rather anticipate the conclusion to the argument and somewhat prejudices the case.

Part C (N. Hillbom, “The Knossos game board”, OpAth 29, 2004, in press.)

The jewel among the Bronze Age gaming material discovered in Crete is the “Knossos game board” or Kgb, which is the subject of a detailed analysis and discussion in the third chapter. H begins with a description of the board itself, including misrepresentations of the board in previous published reports. He then discusses comparable materials from Knossos, Tylissos and Mycenae and ends with a possible way that play might have been conducted on this board. This is the greatest degree of speculation in which H indulges, but it would be unreasonable, after such an in-depth study, not to offer a suggestion as to how the game was played. After all of his work, H is in a better position than most to offer such a suggestion.

Part D (N. Hillbom, “Minoan game markers, pieces and dice. Small archaeological finds that could belong to games and gaming”, OpAth 30, 2005, forthcoming.)

H tackles the formidable task of sifting a large amount of minutiae to determine what pieces which have been found and published could have been used for gaming purposes. He rightly notes that many gaming pieces would have been either ephemera (seeds, beans, dungballs), which would not have survived to be discovered, or would have been random pebbles found on the ground, which would be impossible to identify. H is conservative in his identifications, noting that a given piece is likely or unlikely to have been a gaming piece. His conclusions are, when possible, based on find-spot,

Part E (conclusion)

H brings together the fruits of the four chapters and reiterates what he has found and concluded. He reminds his readers that many conclusions cannot be firm, due to the lack of available material. On the other hand, there is likely to be useful material which has been unearthed already and has yet to be sufficiently published or even catalogued.

H has done an admirable job of collecting, categorizing and analyzing all material from Bronze Age Crete which either has been identified or might be identified as gaming material. He carefully analyses all known material and concludes that some material previously thought to be gaming material is probably not and that other material, identified as having some other purpose, was probably used for gaming. His arguments and conclusions are sober and display due caution where identification cannot be certain.

The book is well put together and there are few errors; those that the reviewer found in no way hampered understanding.1 The intended audience is more the specialist than a general reader or an undergraduate. It is assumed that abbreviations such as “LM III” are understood without any explanation. Although it is no great leap to fill in this acronym, the time period to which it refers is much less obvious or widely known. This particular issue is not of great significance as H notes that Bronze Age Crete chronology is notoriously unreliable.

The book’s greatest value will be as a launching point for further research in the area of Bronze Age Cretan gaming and a re-examination of materials already found and now housed in museum collections.


1. p. 50; “the large cup-holes on the huge slab by the entrance to the ‘Palace’ is not explained,”; p. 77; “the larger patterns remains”; p. 89; “for each and one of them separately”; p. 109; “angels” for angles; p. 275; “associated to” for associated with.