Friday, May 10, 2019

The World’s Oldest Board Games

From The New Yorker:
When modern archaeologists first chanced on a board of Fifty-eight Holes, they mistook it for an inkwell. The board, which was discovered in Egypt, early in the nineteenth century, occupies the back of a carved hippopotamus, its hollows set amid inlaid glass on blue faience. The hippo lives at the Louvre, where Anne Dunn-Vaturi, who is something of a Fifty-eight Holes obsessive, previously worked. “Because there were big holes, they thought they were for the ink,” Dunn-Vaturi, now a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, said. She told me about Flinders Petrie, the British Egyptologist who found another board later in the nineteenth century, and who proposed that it was a game. More boards emerged from excavations in Anatolia, Israel, and Iran, the oldest dating back to the dawn of the second millennium B.C. 
The game’s rules became clearer after 1910, when Howard Carter dug an ivory board out of a pit tomb in Thebes. Carter’s set is held by the Met, and Dunn-Vaturi took me to see it one morning, before the museum opened. The board, perched on legs sculpted like a bull’s, is the size of a paperback and shaped in the manner of a violin. (Another board that is held at the Met is even tinier, brother to a matchbox.) In the tomb, Carter also found ten slim, toothpick-like playing pieces, which can be stored in a small drawer built into the board. The heads of five of the pieces have been whittled to resemble jackals; the other five bear the heads of hounds. At the apex of the board is the goal: a hole marked by the Egyptian Shen symbol, a circle nuzzled by its tangent. (Read more.)

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