The Name of the Game–Ancient Board Games in Israel

Michael Sebbane

Board games are among the most common and widespread kind of game in the world, and almost everyone has played some form of board game at one time or another. They can be defined as games with a journey for two or more players, who have to move game pieces on a marked board from a starting point to the finish. Thousands of games fit into this category, with every culture having its own characteristic games. Some games require skill and strategy, some are games of luck and some are a mixture of the two elements.

In practice, board games may be classified into four main families:

· Games of chance (such as Backgammon and Senet)

· Positioning games (such as Tic-tac-toe and The Nine Men's Morris)

· War games (such as Chess and Checkers)

· Mancala games

Some games have broken the "boundaries of time and geographical and cultural space", becoming well-known and played throughout the world for hundreds of years. This phenomenon intensified in the twentieth century as the world became a "global village."

A similar picture emerges from the archaeological finds and remains. Game boards, game pieces, throwing sticks and bones, knuckle bones (astragalus) and dice have been found throughout the ancient Middle East. The finds demonstrate that similar games were being played from at least the seventh millennium BCE. The evidence we have does not allow us to fully reconstruct the world of the board games, yet the accumulated data enables us to understand the important role that they played in the daily and spiritual life of man in ancient times. We do have the means to point to some of the most common games in different periods, to recognize their geographical distribution and the ways in which they were used – the rules of play, who would have participated in them and why, when and where they were played.

The range of boards and game pieces found – elaborate boards and game pieces made of ivory, bone and alabaster alongside simple boards roughly scrawled on field stones, slabs and tiles – shows that all levels of the population used them: kings, noblemen and common people. As well as "private" game boards found in palaces, dwelling houses and burial complexes, many boards have been found in public gathering places: at city gates, streets, squares and central market places, temples, bath houses, wayside stops and road stations, wells and water cisterns, olive presses, winepresses and flour mills.

It appears that their widespread distribution derives from their "simplicity" and from being equal and available to all:

· They are easily prepared – no technical skills, special tools or raw materials are required to make them. Game boards were formed by incisions or shallow drills on stone tablets or slabs, or were scratched in the ground. Stones, river pebbles, animal droppings and natural sticks served as game pieces. These means are still used in our region today among Egyptian villagers and the Bedouin of Sinai and the Negev.

· The rules of play are clear and easily learnt – the basic rules of play may quickly be mastered. On the other hand, players can become experts and increase their level of control over the mysteries of the game.

The assemblage of ancient board games in Israel comprises dozens of boards and game pieces of different kinds, revealed during excavations and archaeological surveys throughout the country. To illustrate, here is a short review of three games played in our region for five thousand years, from the third millennium BCE until the present day.

Senet – the game of thirty houses

The game of Senet was widespread in Egypt for about three thousand years, from the time of the Old Kingdom (2,600 BCE) until the end of the Roman period (350 CE). It can be declared the national board game of Ancient Egypt. The game was widely depicted in tomb paintings and in the Book of the Dead which have revealed its Egyptian name, Senet, and enable us to understand some of its rules.

In addition to the game used in daily life, a version with religious significance developed in Egypt. The Egyptians believed that after death, the soul of the dead person sets off on a journey in the World of the Dead, during which it is judged for its deeds. If found innocent, the soul unites with the sun god Ra and the deceased becomes immortal. The stages in the game reflect this journey and the victory at the end symbolizes the unification of the soul with the god. Dozens of simple game boards formed by incision or drilling on chalk stones exposed at Tel Arad show that the game was also common in the southern part of Ancient Israel. It appears that its appearance at Tel Arad is contemporary with, and perhaps even earlier than, its Egyptian counterpart. Game boards discovered at Lahish and Hazor are evidence that the game was also customary in Ancient Israel in the Iron Age II period. Remnants of the game can probably be found in a board game known by its Arab name Tab, played by villagers in Egypt and Sudan and by the Bedouin of Sinai and the Negev until modern times.

Nine Men's Morris – the Knights' Game

The Nine Men's Morris game has been played in its present form since the Late Roman period (the third century CE) and it is still played today, although its distribution and prevalence is diminishing and it seems to be doomed to disappear. At this stage of research, we have no clear data indicating where the game originated, whether in the east or the west of the Roman Empire, or what its ancient names and original rules of play were. Our knowledge is based mainly on evidence from fourteenth century England, France and Germany, where the game reached the height of its distribution.

The evidence from Israel shows that the game was common at the time of the Crusaders; game boards have been found at fortresses in Atlit and Cohav Hayarden. The game, which was common in Medieval Europe, was naturally also popular among the founders of the Crusader Kingdom and its inhabitants in the Levant.

Mancala – the Sowing Game

Mancala belongs to a very large family of board games differentiated from each other by rules of play and form – the number of rows and depressions. We have no clear evidence of where they came from, their date or the way they evolved. They all appear to have evolved from an ancient prototype somewhere in East Africa. The evidence from Israel shows that Mancala was played in our region from Byzantine times (fourth century CE) onwards. It became more frequent during the Islamic period (seventh century CE) and later. Game boards have been found at different sites, including: Ahziv, Tiberias, Beit She’an, Zippori, Ramat Hanadiv and Nahal Taninim. The game was common among the rural inhabitants of the country up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Mancala games of various kinds continue to be popular today, and are played in Africa, Asia, South America and North America, as well as in the Philippine Islands, Indonesia and Malaysia. Their widespread geographic distribution is a consequence of the slave trade from Africa.

Conclusion: The widespread popularity and distribution of board games both in ancient times and today shows how important and necessary they are. It would seem that the need to play, or to watch a game, is ingrained in us and is a fundamental part of human culture. Games allow us to take 'time out' from daily worries and to enjoy chatting and relaxing together.