BMCR 2008.09.48

Ancient Board Games in Perspective. Papers from the 1990 Britsh Museum colloquium, with additional contributions

, , Ancient board games in perspective : papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium, with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 2007. vi, 281 pages : illustrations ; 31 cm. ISBN 9780714111537 $100.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book begins with an apology by the editor for the length of time for this volume. Seventeen years between conference and publication must be something of a record and inevitably creates high expectations among its readership – will the book be worth the wait? In this case I think the answer will be yes, if only because of the variety of the topics covered and the range of approaches to be found, from the practical to the analytical. The papers are arranged by type of games as well as chronologically within each type. There are several papers on Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greco-Roman and Chinese board games as well as chess, backgammon and mancala. There are also ‘stand alone’ papers, such as those on Hnefatafl and rithmomachia. The papers maintain a fairly consistent standard of quality, although perhaps the most consistent thing is the long shadow of H.J.R. Murray who appears in 16 bibliographies out of the 31 papers. His A History of Board Games other than Chess is obviously still the fount from which all discussion springs. As often happens with festschrift, some of the papers are quite accessible to non-experts, while others are extremely ‘dense’ and will be appreciated only by those who are pursuing in depth scholarly research. There will be very few who read this book cover to cover, but also few who will not find something useful. Given the large number of papers in this collection, I will limit myself to describing groups of papers, noting individual contributions as warranted or merited.

After a useful introduction by Finkel in which he outlines the history and categories of the various types of board games, there is a brief paper on the slim evidence for board games in the Neolithic period. The next two papers are on the Royal Game of Ur, which was probably a race type game in which tokens were moved around a track to a finish. Finkel attempts to reconstruct the original rules for the game, drawing upon a truly impressive array of evidence. Becker offers the suggestion that this game was connected to divination, by showing how the board resembled the models of sheeps’ livers used to teach divination.

There follow five books on various Egyptian games, including Mehen, Hounds and Jackals and ‘the Game of 20 Squares’. All of these games are race games and are known to us principally through the survival of the games boards and pieces. Kendall and Piccione examine the religious aspects of Mehen and Senet respectively. Tait has an intriguing paper addressing the question of whether Egyptians bet on board games. One minor point which reflects how long this book has taken to be published; Tait (p. 46) apologizes for his use of the term ‘Gamester’. Since this paper was originally delivered, the term gamester has become quite common, referring to a person who regularly plays on-line computer games.

The next cluster of four papers look at the Greco-Roman world, which divides into two pairs. Bell and Roueché each have papers which catalogue games which have been incised on pavements in the Roman east and Aphrodisias respectively. One minor quibble I have is with Roueché who reads Ἡ τυχη Ουρ as an abbreviation for “the fortune ?(is) Our(?ania) (p. 101). A simpler reading would be “heavenly fortune”. The other two papers, by Rieche and Purcell examine the social and cultural context of such gaming concepts as luck, dice and winning. Purcell is certainly correct when he says that the seemingly frivolous material of gaming can be very illuminating. On the other hand, he tends to over-analyze as when he suggests that a white marble game board invokes the domains of decorative architecture and epigraphy (p. 92-93).

There follows a paper co-authored by Roueché and Bell which details a suggested typology for pavement game boards found in the Greco-Roman world. This methodological paper is very useful and their typology will likely be the standard for future gaming research and not just in the Greco-Roman world. Given the basic and universal nature of this paper, it is surprising that it has been nestled in the middle of the book.

The book then takes a huge step east stopping in India for a catalogue of game boards found so far in the ruins of Vijayanagara before continuing on to China. There are three papers on Chinese board games, followed by three on chess and then five on backgammon, the last of which examines backgammon-like games in China. This cluster of eleven papers demonstrates the interconnectedness of Chinese and Indian culture, at least where games are concerned and highlights the still ongoing debate as to which society can claim to have originated chess and backgammon. The three papers on Chinese board games are largely descriptive and focus on the games themselves, rather than their social context or significance. Andrew Lo does note that shengguan, a board game which the players roll dice to advance through the bureaucratic hierarchy, may have reflected the precarious nature of the careers of officials. Of the three papers on chess, two discuss the origins and antiquity of this game. In the third Eales notes some of the factors that made chess palatable to a western audience. Semenov tackles the topic of the origin of backgammon by examining the archaeological record. This serves as an introduction to Micaela Soar’s fulsome contribution which describes the origins of backgammon and argues that this game began in India and then spread eastward to China. The other three papers discuss the spread of backgammon into China and western Europe.

The book then travels to Africa for three papers on the game of Mancala. This game, which may be the world’s oldest, involves inserting and then moving small pieces, usually rocks, beads, etc. around a course of two rows of small cups. The object of the game is either to capture more pieces than your opponent, or to put your opponent in a position where they have no legal move. There are three papers, the first of which outlines the rules and some basic variations. The other two look at how mancala reflects the culture which plays it. Townsend examines how the variations in the rules of play often reflect the society. He describes the various types of play as “metaphors of different lifestyles” (p. 249). Walker discusses how mancala functioned among the tribal elite, a phenomenon which seemed to be quite widespread in Africa.

The next two papers deal with two very arcane games; hnefatafl and rithmomachia. Hnefatafl is a strategy game very similar to chess, except that only one side has a king. The object is for the player with the king to reach a certain point on the board. The opponent wins by capturing the king. Riddler surveys the playing pieces which have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves in order to traces the game’s origins. Rithmomachia (the philosopher’s game) is easily the most complex game discussed in the book and involves both strategy and complex mathematical computations. Stigter attempts to create modern rules for this medieval game. In this last paper there was a minor mistranslation of a Latin line where omnia disposuisti is rendered as “everything is ordered” (p. 263), whereas it really says, “you ordered everything”. Of slightly more significance is the fact that two individual lines of Latin are translated for the reader, but later longer passages, two of Latin and one of French are left untranslated.

The book ends with something of a flourish. Freeman-Wittholt traces the work of Robert Stewart Culin on board games in Meso-America with the ultimate purpose of showing his influence in the origins of Monopoly. This very neatly brings the book into the modern era.

The production is of a very high quality, amply illustrated and with very few typos – none that detract from the book. As examples, the word ‘to’ is missing on page 13 and on page 22 in a chart of probability 1:10 is written instead of 1:16. Also, on page 122, fig. 15.17 0.24mm is written where 24mm is obviously meant. But this is pretty insignificant stuff. Overall, the papers are written at a fairly high academic level, but are generally accessible to a wider audience. One thing which seems missing was any acknowledgement that some of these ancient board games have been revived in contemporary western society.

What might stand out most in this book is the wide variety of methodologies and goals. Some papers are interested in the games for their own sakes, attempting to reconstruct the rules of play or to trace a game’s origins. Other papers use the games as tools to help create an understanding of the cultures which played them. Each goal has its own merits and it is refreshing to see them rub shoulders in the same text. This book should have quite a broad appeal, not only to students and scholars of a wide range of cultures and civilizations, but also to individuals with an interest in board games.

Table of Contents An introduction / Irving L. Finkel
Homo ludens: the earliest board games in the Near East / St John Simpson
The royal game of Ur / Andrea Becker
On the rules for the royal game of Ur / Irving L. Finkel
Mehen: the ancient Egyptian game of the serpent / Timothy Kendall
Were there gamesters in pharaonic Egypt? / W.J. Tait
The Egyptian game of senet and the migration of the soul / Peter A. Piccione
The game of hounds and jackals / A.J. Hoerth
The Egyptian ‘game of twenty squares’: is it related to ‘marbles’ and the game of the snake? / Edgar B. Pusch
Board games and their symbols from Roman times to early Christianity / Anita Rieche
Inscribed imperial Roman gaming-boards / Nicholas Purcell
Notes on pavement games of Greece and Rome / R.C. Bell
Late Roman and Byzantine game boards at Aphrodisias / Charlotte Roueché
Graeco-Roman pavement signs and game boards: a British Museum working typology / R.C. Bell and C.M. Roueché
Game boards at Vijayanagara: a preliminary report / John M. Fritz and David Gibson
Horse coins: pieces for da ma, the Chinese board-game ‘driving the horses’ / Joe Cribb
An introduction to board games in late imperial China / Andrew Lo
Go in China / John Fairbairn
The beginnings of chess / Michael Mark
Grandmasters of shatranj and the dating of chess / R.D. Keene
Changing cultures: the reception of chess into western Europe in the Middle Ages / Richard Eales
Board games in central Asia and Iran / Grigori L. Semenov
Board games and backgammon in ancient Indian sculpture / Micaela Soar
Notes on the early history of the backgammon family in China / Andrew Lo
A late eleventh-century tabulae set from Gloucester / I.J. Stewart
A brief history of backgammon and the design of the board / Malcolm J. Watkins
An overview of mancala rules and variations / L. Russ
The typological spread of the game of mancala / Philip Townshend
Mancala game boards as African emblems of status / R.A. Walker
The pursuit of hnefatafl / Ian Riddler
Rithmomachia, the philosophers’ game: an introduction to its history and rules / Jurgen Stigter Robert Stewart Culin
New World games / Bonita Freeman-Witthoft