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5,000-Year-Old Game Pieces Prove the Impulse to Create Board Games is Intrinsic

by Michael Barnes (09/04/13).

Stone pieces, such as these ancient tokens found in Turkey, are regarded as a luxury today. The ancient Turks had not yet discovered plastic miniatures and die-cut cardboard.

When I’ve written in this column about hobby board games or the kinds of board games that most folks are familiar with, 50 or 60 years represents a very, very old game. I talk about games that existed before the 1970s as if they were ancient relics of some Land Before Dungeons & Dragons.

But what about a 5,000-year-old board game? According to Discovery Magazine, archaeologists in Turkey have uncovered what are believed to be the oldest gaming pieces found to date. Although the Egyptian game Senet predates these pieces, dating back to Predynastic Egypt, circa 3500 B.C., no existing pieces of games have yet to be found. So that makes these tokens the oldest gaming equipment on earth.

Rummaging through Bronze Age burial sites, the researchers found 49 small stone and shell tokens, some of which are carved to represent animals and abstract shapes, along with some very primitive dice. The pieces are also painted in uniform color schemes, apparently indicating that they are a set. There were also some deteriorated wooden components but no board was found. As to what the game was, what it represented, or how it was played, the ancient Turks didn’t bother to leave behind a rulebook, so it’s anyone’s guess.

An aerial view of the dig site at Basur Hoyuk in Turkey, where these millennia-old gaming pieces were discovered. In addition to the tokens, archaeologists also found jewelry, metalwork and pottery indicative of cultural influences from surrounding areas, suggesting cross-fertilization of cultural ideas—which might have included gaming concepts.

It’s fascinating to imagine what kind of game or games the ancient Turks might have played with these pieces. Following on what we know about the history of board games and their development, we could surmise that the game is likely a simple strategy game reflective of certain elements of the local culture, religion or lifestyle. Or it could possibly be a mathematical concept turned into a playable toy. Ancient board games tended to develop as a way to reflect certain aspects of life, such as the aforementioned Egyptian game Senet that was very much about local religious beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. Or perhaps this ancient game was some kind of millennia-ahead-of-its-time miniatures wargame where you maneuver the armadillo pieces to take over the pyramids controlled by the chicken pieces. It wouldn’t be that surprising, since many ancient games seem to represent conflict or warfare. We may never know how or why this particular game developed or what its cultural significance might be.

It is widely believed that board games originated in the Fertile Crescent, the so-called “cradle of humanity” and were popular throughout ancient Mesopotamia. From there, we can trace the lineage up through African Mancala counting games, Indian Pachisi boards, Go, as it was played in ancient China (although popularized later in Japan), Chess, circa the 6th century, and on down the line until we get to whatever were the latest board games released a few weeks ago at Gen Con. There is a lineage of board gaming history that is largely unknown by the masses whose frame of reference likely doesn’t extend beyond their own childhoods and a general understanding that Chess is “really old.”

The Royal Game of Ur, as it is commonly known, dates to 2600-2400 B.C. and was found in Iraq among Sumerian ruins.

What interests me the most about finds like these Turkish pieces—and ancient games in particular—is how they demonstrate the persistence of board games as an artistic medium, as a way to express stories and aspects of the human experience in an abstracted way. It’s a very peculiar thing, really, to take something such as farming and work out a way to simulate or represent it on a table using miniature pieces and using a set of strictures to define context and meaning.

And it’s a universal thing, from ancient Turkey down through Africa, across the Atlantic to South America, up through the North American indigenous cultures and back around through Asia and Europe and everywhere in between. For some reason, this impulse to create board games exists in the human character, and as these 5,000-year-old pieces exhibit it likely always has in some form or another. I think it’s also significant that many ancient board games have been discovered at burial sites and in tombs. Given ancient funerary customs, this seems to indicate that board games were important treasures to their owners. Either that or someone thought that the departed might get bored on their trip to the afterlife.


Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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