Lessons from One of the Oldest Board Games

As an aspiring archaeologist, I delight in finding the connections between material culture and my everyday experiences. I do not intend to become the cinematic depictions of archeologists, although Harrison Ford is quite the looker. I also do not want to portray my knowledge (or lack thereof) in the same manner as the talking heads on many History Channel specials, such as the meme-worthy show, Ancient Aliens. Regardless, I want to shed some light on the subject of human history and the artistry, ideology, and history of board games.

 Not the kind of archaeology we're goin' for

Not the kind of archaeology we're goin' for

 Dreamy, but not quite archaeology either

Dreamy, but not quite archaeology either

Our objects serve as emotional and ideological reminders, allowing us as human beings to keep track of our past and our identity through physical objects. The ring I wear on my left-hand carries with it deep symbolism of my commitment to my faith. The carved elephants that my family keeps are a reminder of the legacy of my grandfather. Frequently, ordinary objects and activities are the descendant materials of pretty phenomenal human ingenuity and ritual. Consider the significance of even something so simple as a US mint quarter. Currency is a novel creation of humanity that carries on in the pockets and car cupholders of current men and women. The objects we make bear the impression of who we are. Consider that quarter again, which has inscribed on it, “E Pluribus Unum.” The American Identity is quite literally impressed onto the coin and serves as the symbolic reminder of American values. Not money, but paradoxical unity amongst diverse parts.

 
 Even our currency has a rich history

Even our currency has a rich history

 

Bearing in mind this notion of the impression of values onto artifacts, let’s bring this investigation back to board games since that’s what we here at HPG love most of all. One exquisite piece unearthed by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley is the Royal Game of Ur. Made from wood and shell in Iraq around 2600BC, the Royal Game of Ur is extremely ornately decorated and even features game tokens, not unlike the tokens used in playing Backgammon or Checkers. Sadly, no rule book survived thousands of years alongside the game to explain how it might have been played. However, such an artifact stands as a testament to human development. If an Early Dynastic human was faced with the constant threat of hunger or war, then that person would certainly not have the time and energy to craft a board that served primarily for entertainment decoratively. We, as archaeologists (I’m including you too!), can infer that the game must have been made and played within a royal context that had excess in goods, leaving the wealthy owners and players with enough time for fun and games.

 The Royal Game of UR

The Royal Game of UR

 Click either image to see more photos!

Click either image to see more photos!

Perhaps the ornate decorations and delicate craftsmanship are simply a show of the owner’s wealth, however, if the board served as a true board game, then the implications are much greater. Part of the human urge, as we see in the Royal Game of Ur, is to create games. We love the challenge, the competition, and the social exchange deeply interwoven in game mechanics, components, and conversations that constitute our games. These desires that lie within the human mind and behavior are then impressed onto the world around us. Whether we are marking squares onto a sidewalk with chalk for hopscotch or hollowing a cross-section of an olive tree for a Backgammon board, humans place their values and identities into the materials they craft.

I leave you with a simple question for reflection: What are the objects that mean the most to you, and how do they demonstrate your personal, familial, or communal narrative?