Pesach Sameach and Happy Easter! There’s an ancient board game in ‘The Ten Commandments’ !

It’s currently Passover and Easter is coming up and because of that one thing is certain: Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments is going to be all over your TV this weekend.  It has little to do with the story of Easter, but it frequently coincides with Passover—which is the case this year—and the movie actually tells the story of that holiday, which celebrates the story of the liberation of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The cinematic retelling of the Biblical story of Moses from 1956 is a work of massive scale and is one of the more memorable films involving ancient Egyptian characters and motifs. This post will not tackle the monumental task of critiquing the movie’s Egyptian historical references (or the problems of reconciling the Biblical narrative with the archaeological record). I will, instead, focus on one particular scene, in which two of the major characters play an ancient Egyptian board game, “Hounds and Jackals,” which is based on actual artifacts.

In the movie, Pharaoh Sethi and Princess Nefretiri are playing the game in the royal palace. Sethi’s adviser interrupts the game with complaints against Moses, and Sethi dismisses his concerns. Nefretiri is due to marry either Rameses or Moses and become Queen of Egypt. She prefers Moses, but Rameses is the elder brother (and the only biological son of Sethi), so Sethi prefers her to marry Rameses. In the end, Nefretiri wins the game, and she implies that she won by accident, and had been letting Sethi win in order to gain favor for Moses.

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“PLEASE DONT MAKE ME MARRY RAMESES” -Nefretiri

In the movie, they call the pieces “hounds” and “jackals,” and the game has commonly been known as known as “Hounds and Jackals” in some of the archaeological literature, or as the game of 58 holes in more scholarly parlance. We, unfortunately, do not know what the ancient name for this game was, as there are no undisputed pictorial scenes or textual evidence including this game. The board takes the form of two parallel rows of eleven holes, which are then surrounded by an arc of 36-38 holes. Sometimes there is an extra group of holes, called a “labyrinth,” surrounding a larger hole, which seems to be the goal point of the game. The board itself can vary widely in shape, from a simple oval to a violin shape, and some that are in the shape of hippopotami or frogs. Accompanying the board are a series of pegs, usually with the heads of hounds and jackals. It is assumed that one player used the hound pegs, while the other used the jackal pegs.  We do not know whether dice or other kinds of randomization devices were used in the game, even though casting sticks, which were definitely used for other games such as senet, are used in the film.

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58 Holes Board now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The board that Seti and Nefertiri are playing on is modeled after a specific artifact, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Made out of ivory, it was found by Howard Carter, the man who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and it has a distinctive palm tree decoration in the center. No other known historical example of this game has, but which is reproduced in the film’s version. There is also a notch at the top of the film’s reproduction that also exists in the Met’s game, but this is because an element has broken off from the board, rather than it being the intended shape. The board in the movie is a super-sized version of this board, as the board itself as well as the pegs are enlarged, probably to be more easily visible onscreen.

The origins of this game are presently somewhat unclear. The earliest example that we know of comes from Eleventh Dynasty ( roughly 2134-1991 BCE) Egypt. There are multiple other examples of this game from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Anatolia (modern Turkey) that appear very shortly after this first game in Egypt. It is almost suspicious that these games appear in those places so rapidly, particularly those in central Anatolia, which did not have direct trade connections with Egypt. The boards that were used for 58 holes have been found in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and maybe even Azerbaijan.

Further compounding this confusion is the fact that this game seems to have had a longer period of popularity in Mesopotamia than it did in Egypt. After the Middle Kingdom, the game became less popular in Egypt, perhaps as a new game, the game of twenty squares, increased in popularity during that time. After the New Kingdom, Hounds and Jackals is completely absent from Egypt, which we can see from a lack of game boards of this type from tombs and other sites from these later periods. Despite this, 58 holes remained a popular game in Mesopotamia, particularly in Assyria. There are a few games of this type with the name of Esarhaddon, ruler of the Assyrian empire from 681- 669 BCE, nearly 600 years after the last known example from Egypt.

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58 Holes board from Megiddo, modern Israel.

Just as we don’t know the ancient name of this game, we similarly don’t know how it was played, what the goal of the game was, whether the pegs were moved in a predetermined pattern (as in chess), or if they were moved according to the result of randomization devices such as casting sticks or dice. Inferences have been made about how the game might have been played, but it is based solely on interpretations on how one would play a game with this board configuration and sets of pegs. There are no texts or pictorial evidence telling us how it was played. Senet is an Egyptian game for which there are texts and some playing scenes in art that give a partial view of the way that game was played, but nothing like this exists for 58 holes.

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Possible 58 Holes board from Azerbaijan . Photo Credit: Ronnie Gallagher

Interestingly, there may be evidence that this game spread even further afield. Recent survey work in the region around Baku, Azerbaijan have produced a series of patterns of holes in bedrock and portable flat stones that mirror the pattern seen in 58 holes boards. They display the central parallel lines, the arch of holes around it, and even some of the connecting lines which are seen on some of the games from Egypt and Mesopotamia. The resemblance is striking and unlikely to be coincidental. Even though this part of Azerbaijan is roughly 500 miles from Mesopotamia, there is evidence for early contact between the two regions, particularly in western Azerbaijan. At this point in time, however, more archaeological work needs to be done to understand the dating of this game in Azerbaijan. Doing so will be crucial to understanding the social processes that brought this board game across such a great distance.

It is always exciting to see a relatively faithful reproduction of an ancient artifact in popular culture, and also to see it used in a fairly reasonable way. If you’re going to be watching The Ten Commandments this weekend, keep an eye out for this scene and drop some knowledge on your friends and family members!

 

What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Archaeology–And Why That Can Be Dangerous

I am constantly reminded of the ways that archaeology is portrayed in the media that are: 1. misunderstandings of what archaeologists actually do and 2. downright irksome to archaeologists themselves. While some of these things can amount to minor annoyances, they can often feed into common perceptions that feed into the destruction of cultural heritage. This has very real consequences for the people to whom this heritage belongs.

One thing I came across this week was this article in the Miami Herald, which discusses a historian’s inquiry into the final fate of the last Sapa Inka (i.e., Emperor of the Inka Empire), Atahualpa. For those who may not know, the Inka Empire existed along the Andes Mountain range and Pacific coast of South America, including parts of modern Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. It lasted until the Spanish Conquest, when Francisco Pizarro had Atahualpa murdered in 1533. The story goes that Pizarro was holding Atahualpa ransom, but was too impatient for the vast amounts of gold to reach him, he so slaughtered Atahualpa while the gold was en route. According to legend, the gold is still somewhere waiting to be found in the mountains and jungles of Ecuador. Tamara Estupiñan, the historian in the article, believes that she has at least found the final resting place of Atahualpa, in a previously under-explored site called Malqui, which happens to also be the Quechua for “royal mummy.” Atahualpa’s body has not yet been found—and probably never will be due to the fact that the Inka didn’t bury royal mummies because they believed they retained a form of life even in death.

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Portrait of Atahualpa now in the Brooklyn Museum

From the headline, the author of the article takes a particular approach by wrapping this research in a “lost treasure” narrative in dealing with archaeological materials. This idea, that there are lost treasures out there to be found, comes from the historical motivations of people searching for valuable artifacts. Even in antiquity, people knew that artifacts could be found buried in the ground, and that other people would pay a great deal of money for them. This is why the Egyptians stopped building pyramids. A pyramid is basically a giant billboard saying GOLD TREASURE INSIDE!! None of the Egyptian pyramids have been found with their contents intact by modern archaeologists, so we believe they were all looted in antiquity. Because of this, they started burying pharaohs in tombs dug into the ground in the Valley of the Kings instead of putting them in giant monuments. But still, most of those were looted in antiquity as well. the tomb raiding was so bad that at one point in time, priests had to salvage as many of the royal mummies as they could get their hands on and put them into a separate secret tomb outside of the valley.

Starting in the 1700s and extending through the 1800s and early 1900s, the main focus of excavation was to obtain objects for museum collections and for private collections, which were often bought for great sums of money. Many  famous early discoveries came from expeditions seeking artifacts for this purpose. People like Heinrich Schliemann, who found hoards of gold artifacts at the Homeric cities of Troy and Mycenae, Henry Austen Layard, who took many artifacts and giant statues from the Assyrian cities Nimrud and Nineveh in the Mosul region of Iraq, and Giovanni Batista Belzoni, who explored sites all over Egypt, all exemplified this type of mentality when it came to collecting artifacts.

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Belzoni’s expedition to Egypt, taking a colossal statue of Rameses II for the British Museum

Today, we do not call it archaeology when people search for antiquities for the sake of their monetary or artistic value. It is more accurately called antiquarianism. Today, archaeologists are more concerned with what we can say about peoples’ lives through the use of ancient material culture, rather than just looking for the things just because they are there to be found.

Nevertheless, archaeology is still portrayed in this manner in film. Indiana Jones, of course, comes to mind, as he is traipsing across the world searching for this or that great lost treasure. His continuing assertion: “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!” is a great rallying cry against the looters he fights against, showing his commitment to cultural heritage that should be shared by all.

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Despite this, the methods depicted in the Indiana Jones films are outdated, even for the time period in which they take place. For archaeologists, the objects themselves are only the beginning of the information that we look for. Even more important than the objects themselves is the archaeological context in which they were found. This includes information on where specifically the objects were found and what other objects were found with it. This information allows us to talk about how things were used, who may have used them, and allows us to be better able to provide a date for when the objects were made or used. When we know the archaeological context of many different objects, then we can talk about how people used objects for different purposes in different places, or how their culture changed though time. Without this information, we just have some pretty objects.

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Maybe not as exciting to watch, but way more necessary.

Unfortunately, this kind of portrayal of archaeology in popular culture feeds common attitudes about what archaeology is. I cannot tell you how many times people ask, when finding out that I’m an archaeologist “What’s the best thing you ever found?” “How much is that stuff worth?” “Do you get to keep what you find?” It’s not a treasure hunt, and articles such as the one about Atahualpa also perpetuate this idea that it is one by approaching archaeology as a field where people are looking for gold and riches. Admittedly, preserving cultural heritage and learning about past cultures provides for fewer attention-grabbing headlines than finding lost treasures and solving ancient mysteries. But there is a dangerous side to all of this. Looters do still exist, and antiquities are often sold on the Black Market, and even in reputable auction houses, despite the fact that UNESCO has prohibited the sale of antiquities discovered after 1970.

 

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Yes, well-organized looters like the ones in True Lies do exist in real life.

Nevertheless, people looking for some quick money will loot archaeological sites and sell the objects to wealthy collectors, particularly when there is upheaval, such as in Iraq after the American invasion, and in Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster. Once these objects are looted, any information that they may provide us is lost forever, and once they are in the hands of collectors, even the little information that the objects themselves contain without context may remain unknown to archaeologists for many years. In addition, people have lost their lives when they have stumbled on looting operations.

The best way to stop looters is to remove any marketability in ancient artifacts, and the best way to achieve that is through education about the value of archaeology, and the value of what it can tell us when done properly. There, of course, will always be movies and shows about fictional archaeologists who seek treasure over the course of a grand adventure, but some newer reality shows, such as Diggers, which essentially encourage people to search for artifacts and to loot the evidence for the past on their own, definitely go too far. It’s a perplexing conundrum and a fine line to walk, as popular culture is a major driver of the public’s interest in archaeology, which is definitely a good thing. There must always, however, be a certain amount of responsibility taken to encourage people to respect, preserve, and cherish the past.

An Archaeology of Alternative Facts: The Egyptian Game of Senet

Ah, the internet. What would we do without it in this day and age? The ease of access to information, as well as the ability to disseminate information, has never been greater. Of course, as we see every single day, this comes with its drawbacks, as there is a lot of misinformation that gets spread as fact. And it only seems to be getting worse.

Archaeology is not immune to this phenomenon. It’s a popular subject that many people are interested in and which, on the surface, appears to be a discipline which is fairly accessible to people who can use simple logic. As a result, there is an immense amount of misleading and false archaeological information on the internet.

I’m looking at you, ancient aliens conspiracy theorists.

There are a great number of websites out there, though, that are trying to do a good job of presenting archaeological information in an accessible way, but are doing so because there is incomplete information available to them. Because this information is lacking, it leads to authors taking a certain degree of creative license as they try to fill in some of the holes in the evidence to make the information a little sexier to the reader.

The Egyptian game of senet is one of the prime examples of this phenomenon. Hobbyists and gamers know about this game because it is one of the games from the ancient world for which we have a great deal of information. It was a popular game even in the ancient world, with roughly 400 boards that have been found in Egypt, Nubia, Cyprus, and the Levant. Nobody is surprised that this game has captured the imagination of people who are interested in archaeology. There are websites dedicated to the game, and you can even download apps to play it or buy it on Amazon to play at home.

Because of the popularity of the game, much has been written about it, but much of the information is incorrect. Some sites claim that senet was the first board game ever invented. Some claim that it was an ancestor to other games that are played today. Many of the popular websites claim that it is the first board game from which most others are descended. Many of these claims are demonstrably untrue and, to a degree, it is the fault of archaeology for dismissing games as an uninteresting topic of scholarship.

Games have always been known as a part of ancient life, and senet was among the first to be recognized. A number of early archaeologists attempted to determine what the rules of the game were, but much of this was speculation. For the great majority of the history of archaeology, scholars focused on discovering the origins of senet and discussing its clear religious meaning, but fairly early on they achieved just about all they could with that line of inquiry, and board games have been very much ignored since then. So, with only antiquated studies to draw from, interested laypeople fill in a lot of the holes with information they wish was true, without contemporary experts to contradict them. This snowballs to the point where, when scholars want to bring up the subject, they fall into the trap of these accumulated falsehoods (dare I say, alternative facts).

With that in mind, I would like to take this time to put out on the internet some of the things we DO know about this game.

Senet is indeed a very old game. The first evidence we have for it comes from the Tomb of Hesy-Re, an official in the court of Pharaoh Djoser (c. 2670 BCE). It appears there in the form it takes throughout its history: a rectangular game made up of three rows of ten squares, some of which are marked.

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Senet board with name of Amenhotep III. c. 1360 BCE. Now in the Brooklyn Museum.

Earlier than this, there are pieces of game boards that are consistent with the form of the game senet, but we cannot be sure that they were the same game. Judging from tomb paintings, as well as by items that were found with senet boards, the pieces used on the board were usually conical or shaped like spools. Stick dice were used to determine how many spaces to move the pieces during a turn. They usually came in sets of four sticks, with a round side and a flat side, and once thrown, the number of round or flat sides facing up would determine the number of spaces to move. However, both the Royal Game of Ur and the Egyptian game mehen can be firmly placed earlier in time than senet.

We do not know what the marks on the board mean. We presume they mark events that were supposed to happen when a piece would land on those spaces, but we don’t know what it is that happened.

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Reconstructed senet board from New Kingdom Egypt. Now in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. 

Throughout Egyptian history, paintings and relief sculpture on the walls of tombs show people playing senet. Sometimes these scenes have captions, where the players make exclamations about what is happening in the game, such as “Taking possession by means of passing” or “Lift this up, and hurry up, you fool!”. These give hints about the kinds of things that happened in the course of a game, and are the basis of the rules of reconstructed versions you can buy today. The problem is that these scenes were created over a range of about 2000 years, and therefore the rules are likely to have changed in that amount of time. Chess, which is a very old game (but has not yet existed for as long as senet ), used to be played with dice, which would tell you which piece you had to move on your turn. So, we cannot say that the events captioned in one painting were even a possibility at the time one of the other paintings were made. So, the senet versions you can buy and play today are Frankenstein versions of senet, pieced together from different pieces of what we know of the different sets of rules that existed through history.

Play this made up version of senet here. It’s pretty fun.

We know very little about when people stopped playing senet in Egyptian history. Some claim that Christianity pushed the game out of favor because senet had a strong connection to pagan religion. Senet did indeed have strong religious connections, and was talked about in the Book of the Dead. It was even included in the TV show Lost, because of its connection to Egyptian beliefs about the Afterlife.

If everyone else can make up the rules, why can’t Jacob?! Also: wrong shape for the pieces buddy.

 

The trouble with blaming Christianity is that the latest senet board that we can positively date was made about 600 years before the alleged birth of Christ.  Others claim that senet is an ancestor of backgammon, but it: 1. bears no resemblance to backgammon whatsoever and 2. predates the earliest purported ancestor of backgammon, the Roman ludus duodecim scripta (game of 12 signs) by about 600 years as well. This website claims that Egyptologists think that senet is an ancestor of chess! No Egyptologist in their right mind thinks this.

An interesting thing that the internet overlooks is that senet was quite widely adopted outside of Egypt. People along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as on the island of Cyprus, adopted the game into their own cultures to varying degrees at different time periods, though sometimes their contacts with Egypt were very sporadic. In fact, more senet boards have been found in Cyprus than have been found in Egypt itself.

This example only amounts to an annoyance for those of us who study play in the ancient world. But the problem extends far beyond this, and can be potentially problematic in a chaotic time in which false information is proliferating. Archaeology has always been used as a propaganda tool by people in power to justify their actions, particularly when it comes to making claims of ownership over land or access to resources. It is increasingly imperative that archaeologists remain vocal about archaeological facts to prevent falsehoods from becoming what people believe about the past.

 

The Missing Games of African Antiquity

Continuing in the thread of Black History Month, this week I would like to move away from the role archaeology plays in popular culture, and look at fun in ancient Nubian culture. While Egypt has produced a great wealth of data on ancient play, Nubia remains less well-understood. Nevertheless, we do know a bit about the games ancient Nubians played, particularly when they adopted foreign games. I will also discuss some of the problems we encounter as archaeologists when we try to find indigenous games in ancient African cultures.

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Map of Nubia, showing the ancient boundary between Egypt and Nubia and the modern one between Egypt and Sudan

For those who may not know, Ancient Nubia roughly corresponds to what is now Sudan, directly to the south of Egypt. Just like the Egyptians, most Nubians lived close to the banks of the Nile river, which is surrounded by great expanses of desert. Throughout much of Nubia’s history, it was colonized and subjugated by Egypt, its people often taken into slavery as prisoners of war. As a result of this and other cultural processes, Egyptian cultural practices were often adopted by Nubians.

As I discussed briefly in my post about games in ancient Cyprus, board games are tools that allow people to interact with one another across cultural boundaries, including ethnicity and language differences. Therefore, it is not surprising that we find board games as one of the types of material culture that is adopted into Nubia from other cultures.

One of the earliest documented cultures of Ancient Nubia is known to us as the A-Group. We do not know what they called themselves, because they were a preliterate society (i.e., they had not yet developed a writing system). They lived in Nubia for roughly 700 years, from 3800 – 3100 BCE. We can tell from the archaeological record that they were trading with Egypt at that time, but there is no evidence of them having been conquered by Egypt. Nevertheless, A-Group Nubians were in contact with Egypt, and traded goods with them, and so it is not surprising that some Egyptian cultural motifs were adopted into Nubian culture.

One of the most notable Egyptian artifacts from this time period in Nubia is a board for the game called men. This game is one of the least understood games from Ancient Egypt, as only a very few examples of it have been found. It is famously depicted as one of the three board games in a tomb painting from the Tomb of Hesy-Re, which dates to the Third Dynasty of Egypt (2686-2613 BCE) and also shows the games senet and mehen.

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Painting from the Tomb of Hesy-Re. The game men is shown on the bottom right, with its pieces to its left.

It is also mentioned in a list of offerings in the tomb of Prince Rahotep of the Fourth Dynasty.

Two men games from Nubia comes from the site of Qustul, in northern Nubia. They were found in the “Royal Cemetery,” which is called as such because of the wealth of objects found in the tombs, not because we know they belonged to kings. One board is broken and one is whole, the intact object being a plaque of limestone with 16 parallel grooves running across its width, exactly replicating the pattern seen from the tomb of Hesy-Re. While no game pieces were found in this tomb, a neighboring tomb produced ivory plaques that resemble those pictured with the board in Hesy-Re’s painting. They were also found alongside pieces for the game mehen, strengthening the argument that there were indeed game pieces.

Later in Nubian history, there is evidence that wealthy Nubians may have played the Egyptian game senet, or at least kept senet boards as prestige items. These boards are not completely preserved, as only the inlaid playing spaces have been preserved. These spaces were squares of faience (a bluish green glass paste) or ivory, and can be identified as belonging to senet boards because of their markings, which are known to be specific to senet boards from Egypt.

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Drawing of Ivory plaques, probably for senet judging by their markings. Also, pegs for the game of 58 Holes. After Dunham 1950.

Some of these plaques, as well as gaming pieces that resemble those seen on Egyptian wall reliefs, were found in the tombs of kings and queens of the Kushite Dynasty (760-656 BCE), which conquered and ruled Egypt. These tombs are located at el-Kurru, deep in what is today Sudan. Even though the decoration on the plaques resembles that seen on Egyptian senet board, they deviate noticeably from those found in Egypt, showing that the Nubians put their own spin on this game.

Other evidence for games in Nubia includes a number of ivory pegs with dog and horse heads, which are probably for the game of 58 holes. These pegs were also found in Kushite Dynasty royal tombs, and while this game is unknown from Egypt during that time period, it was popular in Mesopotamia.

Much later in history, after Egypt became incorporated into the Roman Empire, we again see foreign games in Nubia. At Qustul (yes, Qustul again) a well-preserved wooden board for the game duodecim sripta (“twelve signs” in English), a Roman ancestor of backgammon, was found, as was a Roman pyrgus, or dice tower, with five cubic dice. They date to the post-Meroitic Period, after the fourth century CE.

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Pyrgus, or dice tower, a device meant to prevent cheating, from Qustul. Dice are dropped in the top and they come out the bottom.

During the Roman Empire, Nubia was part of the Meroitic Kingdom, and was in periodic conflict with Rome, but was never incorporated into the Empire. Nevertheless, it appears that the these Roman games were played beyond the borders of the empire. Nubia wasn’t the only place this happened: Roman game boards and dice towers have been found in Northern Europe. The specific processes by which these games reached cultures outside the empire is not completely understood.

Unfortunately, most of the evidence we have for play in Ancient Nubia is from these foreign games. It seems likely that there would have been indigenous games that were played there throughout history, but it is difficult to trace them archaeologically. In Sudan, as well as throughout Africa and in the Middle East, board games are often played in an ad hoc  manner, where the game is laid out through hollows or lines made in the sand. Others are created as graffiti on rock surfaces, but these are difficult to date archaeologically, since they could be made at any time the surface was exposed. The popular game of mancala, as well as lesser-known games tab and  siga, have been found in many places throughout Sudan, but none have currently been found in archaeological contexts that can be dated. Therefore, it is impossible to tell if the many patterns for these games are modern in date or if they are ancient.

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Mancala games at Aksum, Ethiopia on a monument dating to the Aksumite Kingdom (100-940 CE). The games were probably made much later than this date.

For example, at Meroe, the capital of the Meiotic Kingdom, where there are over 200 pyramids, there are a number of mancala games on stone blocks. Even though the various pyramids date from between roughly  700 BCE – 350 CE, these blocks were not always buried. There is nothing to indicate that these games were played around the same time the pyramids were built. Instead, Alex de Voogt from the American Museum of Natural history has suggested that these games were made and played by soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Historical records indicate that an Ottoman army camp was located nearby in the 1800s, and another was also located at Sai Island, where more mancala games were found. Since mancala is not played in modern Sudan, it is more than likely that it was introduced by these, the only foreign incursions that far up the Nile.

So it remains that the ancient history of mancala remains unknown. Games are often overlooked in archaeological contexts. This is true even in the extensively investigated cultures of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica. The problem is exaggerated in ancient Africa, in part, because of the lesser amount of attention it receives from archaeologists. More archaeological attention may one day shed light on play, which was likely an important part of ancient African life, as it was elsewhere.

References:
Crist, W., A-E. Dunn-Vaturi and A. de Voogt. 2016. Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games across Borders. London: Bloomsbury.

de Voogt, A.J. 2014. The introduction of mancala to Sai Island. In J.R. Anderson & D.A. Welsby (eds), The Fourth Cataract and Beyond, Proceedings of the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies. London: British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 1, 1017–20.

 

de Voogt, A. 2012. Mancala at the pyramids of Meroe. Antiquity 86: 1155–66.

Dunham, D. 1950. El-Kurru. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

Williams, B.B. 1986. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition III: Excavations between Abu Simbel and the Sudan Frontier. Chicago: Oriental Institute.

 

Giants among Men: Western Perspectives on Ancient Art in Gods of Egypt. Also: Lettuce.

Last week, in my post that touched on race in Ancient Egypt, I took a shot at the movie Gods of Egypt, because of its cast of white actors portraying Egyptian gods. I had never seen the movie, mostly because of this reason, but also because the trailer looked god awful!

 

So, I decided now would be a good time to see what it was all about, mostly to see if there would be anything of substance for me to talk about. Also, not insignificantly, it’s currently on HBO Go, so I didn’t have to pay for it.

Yeah. There’s a lot to talk about.

The movie is essentially a retelling of the myth of The Contendings of Horus and Set, which is told in full in the Papyrus Chester Beatty I, now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. The story is also alluded to in other Egyptian texts. The papyrus dates to the reign of Rameses V, but some scholars suggest that earlier versions of the story may have existed up to 700 years earlier. In the movie, Horus is played by Nikolai Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, and Set is played by Gerard Butler, King Leonidas himself.

In the papyrus, as in the movie, there is a great period of chaos after Osiris, god-king of Egypt, is murdered by his brother Set. Through this period of time, Osiris’ son, Horus, and Set are engaged in a prolonged conflict between one another as they try to attain the throne. In the movie version, this conflict has the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with the imminent onslaught of an apocalyptic being.

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Apophis, the “Lord of Chaos” who takes the form of a snake in Egyptian Mythology, devouring reality.

In the ancient version, Horus and Set engage in a series of personal struggles to convince the Ennead, the council of gods, who is worthy to rule. These competitions include physical contests as well as trickery. In one scene, Set has sex with Horus, intending to prove that Horus is too submissive to be king. Horus, however, catches Set’s semen in his hand and tosses it into a marsh, hiding the evidence. He then puts his own semen into a pot, and Isis takes it and puts it in Set’s lettuce, which Set eats.

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You’re never gonna think of lettuce the same way again.

When Set goes to the Ennead and claims his dominance over Horus, the council demands evidence, so Thoth, god of wisdom, calls out for the semen to answer him. Set’s answers from the marsh, and Horus’ emerged from the top of Set’s head as a golden sun disk. Horus is then proclaimed king.

Did they leave that out to avoid the R-rating? Or did they decide nobody would believe Jaime Lannister is a bottom? We may never know.

As a rule, when watching adaptations of ancient myths or history, I expect there to be considerable deviations from the source material. Particularly with myth, the supernatural, often psychedelic storylines don’t translate well to film, and as we already saw, they’re often too sexually explicit for the intended audience. So, I’m not going to get caught up in how the movie doesn’t stay true to the source material.

Instead, I want to talk about the influence Egyptian art has on the film. From the very beginning, Gods of Egypt gets the interpretation of Egyptian art wrong, and for no discernible reason. The narration, while showing fictional scenes in Egyptian style, describes the time when Osiris was king and the gods lived among humanity. The narrator points out that the gods were distinguishable from humans due to their size: the gods are larger than humans and we can see this in art.

This is, indeed, the way gods and humans were distinguished in real Egyptian art. The reason why is, nevertheless, not that the Egyptians believed that gods were physically larger than humans. Rather, the difference in size is intended to send a message regarding status. Pharaohs were also depicted as larger than other humans in art, not because they were larger in size, but because of their status.

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Tutankhamun really wasn’t this huge, I promise. We found his mummy!

Members of the nobility, like scribes and priests, were also sometimes depicted as larger than other Egyptians.

It’s a curious choice to misinterpret Egyptian art in this way in the movie, as it doesn’t really play a major part in the plot. I suspect it was a part of the world building aspect of movie-making, in which they are creating an alternative reality so that the film exists in its own world distinctly different from our own. Hopefully it was not a bad assumption on the part of the filmmakers, to interpret Egyptian art too literally.

It is not uncommon for people to interpret ancient art in ways that are not appropriate to the culture that made the art. As I mentioned in my post about the Venus of Willendorf in The Young Pope, art is often interpreted incorrectly by imposing Western values and conventions onto ancient objects. Art is a method by which people send messages visually, containing culturally-specific symbols and conventions that convey meaning. Western art, particularly when it draws from the art of Classical Greece and Rome, focuses on realism, and so when individuals are depicted as larger, they are meant to be interpreted as physically large.

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Laocoon and his sons. Laocoon is larger because he is an adult. Realism.

Egyptian art is less concerned with realistic representation than it is on representing the important features of the subjects while using conventions to convey a particular status or other meanings. Everyone has noticed the peculiar stance of Egyptians in paintings, with the legs and head in profile, and the torso in frontal view. Go ahead, try to stand like this:

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If you can get your arms to do that, pics or it didn’t happen.

 

Pretty uncomfortable, no?

That’s because Egyptians were representing the human body in a way that best represented the important elements they wanted to express in art. They didn’t care so much that the subjects were all shown from the same perspective.  Much of Egyptian art was made with the belief that depicting objects and people recreated those things in the Afterlife. Therefore, it was crucial to represent the important parts of those objects, which might have been obscured if they maintained strict adherence to perspective.

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For example: Here is a game board. You can see the individual spaces on the board, meaning that it is being shown from above, even though the perspective of the scene is from the side. If the board was shown from the side, it would be impossible to tell what kind of game it is. Furthermore, the pieces are shown from the side, though, in reality, they would be inside the individual squares. Depicting the game in this way allows the artist to depict that this is a senet game by the layout of spaces, and also shows the type of pieces being used, which would not be recognizable when shown from above like the board.

Expectations of realism in ancient art have led to crackpot theories about advanced technologies in ancient cultures and often fuels discussion of ancient aliens. That topic is too broad to cover in this blog post and will be saved for another time.

For now, let’s just realize that Egyptians didn’t actually walk like this:

 

Black History Month (Ancient Remix ft. Nas and Michael Jackson)

As most people should know by now, February is Black History Month, in which we celebrate the contributions of black people who are often left out of institutionalized Eurocentric history education. In this post, I want to approach the topic ancient history’s contribution to black history in pop culture, a complex and sometimes problematic topic.
Ancient Egypt plays a sort of contested role in the representation of history in pop culture. On the one hand, you have the whitewashing of ancient Egyptian figures, from Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and the recent Gods of Egypt.

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Just. No. Jaime Lannister please go back to Westeros.

On the other, you have Eddie Murphy and Iman as a pharaoh and his queen and Magic Johnson as a member of their court in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video, and Nas’ face on Tutankhamun’s death mask on the cover of his I Am… album.

 

 

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Queens’ own Nas as Tutankhamun

Depictions of black people as Egyptians are part of a reaction against the whitewashing of Egyptian history, and purport to reclaim a history denied to them.

Debates in the academic sphere have raged about how we would fit ancient Egyptians into the modern concept of race. Some argue that Egyptians were indeed black. Some argue they were more like modern Egyptians, and akin to most Middle Eastern peoples. Nobody  who is taken seriously argues they were white. What is important to realize, though, is that:

Egyptians did not categorize people into races in the same way that we do today.

The concept of races based on skin color is essentially a European invention, and the white supremacist ideas that came from it were based in part on European ethnocentrism and by the false application of evolutionary principles after Darwin. Ancient cultures grouped people according to other characteristics. Famously, Classical Greeks categorized people by language: if you spoke Greek, you were Greek, if you didn’t, you were one of the barbaroi, a word from which we get “barbarian” in English.

In Pharaonic Egypt, people were classified by their place of birth. With a cosmology in which Egypt itself was placed at the center of the world, people born in Egypt were considered to be superior to those who were born outside of it. The Egyptians actually went pretty far in their racism: in some of their texts, they didn’t even consider people who born outside of Egypt to be completely human. In one text discussing people who lived further down the Nile —that is, people in modern Sudan or South Sudan—, the language of Africans is described as less intelligible than that of apes.

So, yeah. Ancient Egyptians were pretty effing racist.

But has past racism ever affected peoples’ views of ancient cultures?

European culture appropriated the trappings of Greek and Roman culture, though the Romans conquered them and the Greeks considered them inferior. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, in particular, Neoclassicism became popular in Western and Northern Europe, as these countries began discovering the archaeological past of their southern European neighbors. Ever wonder why government buildings are so frequently made of white marble and almost always incorporate columns and domes and look like Greek and Roman temples? They’re a physical manifestation of this claim to a connection with the ancient past; an attempt to demonstrate continuity with ancient Greece and Rome. These buildings give legitimacy to the institutions that are claiming this legacy.

And it apparently did not matter to them that the Romans were imperialists who colonized Western Europe, killed indigenous peoples, and forced migrations in order to promote stability. It doesn’t matter that the Greeks were only vaguely aware of these places, but looked down upon them as non-Greek speakers. Western culture still portrays Greece and Rome as its ancient heritage.

The reason probably is that people in that part of Europe were preliterate when the Greeks and Romans were around, meaning they had not yet developed writing. It is difficult to get people excited about their ancient past when there are no stories about them. People identify with history most easily when they know about people, mythologies, and events from the past. Lacking that, Europeans turned to Greece and Rome, the nearest ancient societies to which they had a connection.

And so a similar thing is, I would say, ongoing in black culture. There are plenty of ancient societies in Africa, including Great Zimbabwe, the Songhai, Mali, Ghana, and Meroitic cultures, not to mentions the Nubians,and Aksum, but none of them match the deep antiquity or prolific writing tradition of Egypt. Rameses, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Khufu, Imhotep, all these people have stories, and left monuments that can inspire people today about an ancient past.

Egyptian culture had an enormous impact on the cultures to its south, in what is now Sudan and South Sudan.The Nubians, Napatans, and Meroites that lived there, often under Egyptian domination, were so inspired by the culture to their north that there are more pyramids in their lands than there are in Egypt itself.

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Pyramids at Meroe, modern Sudan. The two in the foreground are reconstructed.

In Egyptian art, the way the people living south of Egypt are depicted fits with the modern conception of a black race. That’s not to say that this distinction was important to Egyptians; it was a representation of physical realities. What was important to Egyptians was that they were not born in Egypt, and that’s the only reason Egyptians considered them inferior.

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Inlays from a palace near the Temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu, Egypt. From left: Two Nubians, a Philistine, an Amorite, a Syrian, and a Hittite. All considered inferior in Ancient Egypt. From the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

For most of Egyptian history, the lands to the south of Egypt were treated as trading partners at best, lands to be conquered at the worst.

But then, around 760 BCE, Kashta, the ruler of the Napatan Kingdom, centered about 400 km north of Khartoum, the modern capital of Sudan, conquered parts of Egypt. his son, Piye, managed to conquer the rest of the Nile valley, starting the period that is known in Egyptian history as the Kushite Dynasty. During its height, the Kushite Empire extended from the southern borders of modern Turkey to northern Ethiopia. Their rule over Egypt lasted for about 100 years.

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Sphinx of Pharaoh Taharqa, British Museum

The most famous of the Kushite pharaohs is Taharqa, because he figures prominently in the Kushite military struggles with the Assyrian Empire, centered near modern Mosul, for control of the Levant. He even appears in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9, Isaiah 37:9) as Tirhakah, king of Kush, who sent an army  to stop the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s advance on Jerusalem. Taharqa was unable to stop Sennacherib, and eventually the Assyrians conquered the rest of Egypt. Taharqa’s son Tantamani was the last Kushite ruler of Egypt, though their dynasty continued in Nubia. Taharqa embarked on an impressive building program, restoring many temples throughout Egypt, including the famous Temple of Karnak in Thebes.

Anyway, the Western conception of race continues to complicate the way history is depicted in pop culture. It is undeniable, however, that the legacy of Egypt has had a major impact on African culture in the past and present, and particularly among people in the African diaspora, who lost the connection to their own histories when it was erased during the slave trade.

Ted Cruz has a good idea. Don’t tell him it’s backed up with actual data.

Twitter supplies endless amounts of hilarity, often in the form of other people’s drama. one of my favorite ongoing twitter jokes is the resemblance of Senator Ted Cruz and Grayson Allen, point guard of the Duke men’s basketball team. As a person with progressive political views and as a devoted Syracuse basketball fan, I have equal disdain for both of them Nevertheless, the resemblance is so uncanny it’s endlessly amusing to me. I can’t help but imagine Ted Cruz out there on the court, tripping people, throwing temper tantrums when he’s caught doing it, and then going back to the Capitol to try and force us all to behave according to biblical law after murdering some people for good measure.

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This face swap is the stuff of nightmares.

Anyway, Politico reported that Senator Cruz is starting a pickup basketball game with his colleagues, in an attempt to mend fraying personal relationships with other Republican senators (because, you know, everyone hates him). Deadspin called bullshit on him, asking for a photo of him playing basketball, which resulted in this exchange:

Yikes.

Regardless, the senator’s idea of playing basketball with colleagues to build better relationships with them is a good one. My own research has examined the ways in which people use play, and games in particular, as a way to build social relationships with one another. Having strong social relationships builds trust, and allows people to have more fruitful interactions outside of play, which can have economic, political, and other social consequences.

Games are fundamentally a social act. Unless you’re playing a game of solitaire, you need another person to play a game. The social property of games is related to a skill that is uniquely human: the ability for two people or more to share attention on another object or person separate from them. Research by Michael Tomasello on apes and infant humans has shown that this is instinctual in humans but it is not in apes. Human infants understand from a very early age that when someone points to an object, they should focus their attention on it, and likewise point to things to demand adults to pay attention to those things. Apes can learn to mimic this behavior and respond to it. The difference is that humans can understand that the other person with whom they are sharing attention has a different perspective on that object. We’ve all experienced this in action when we try to point at something to draw a dog’s or cat’s attention to it. They simply do not have the ability to understand what the hell we are doing.

Games provide an excellent activity for people to exercise this uniquely human ability. Whether it’s a board game or a sport, a game provides something on which two people can focus their attention: a board with pieces, a ball, and, in an abstract sense, the action of the game itself.

Another property of games is described by the social theorist Victor Turner. Games allow people a space in which they can behave outside the rules of normal social behavior. For example, you cannot push your boss out of your way to get somewhere at work, nor can you roll some dice to decide whether you’re going to make it to that important meeting. Nevertheless, in a pickup basketball game, physical contact with your boss would not be thought of twice. This property of games, called “liminoid” by Turner, means that people can interact with one another through play in ways that would be impossible in regular social life. This then has consequences for building social relationships, as social divisions that normally exist break down by increased familiarity outside the normally rigid social boundaries we experience.

Thomas Malaby, a cultural anthropologist, observed tavli (Greek backgammon) players in Chania, a city on the island of Crete. He observed that, frequently, the game was played between two acquaintances, and observed by a number of spectators. Throughout the course of the game, the players and spectators use the game to make social inferences about the players. They likened it to the first meeting of the parents of a bride and groom, where they size each other up to determine their worthiness. If people were to pass the test of the game, they would then be judged to be worthy of trust, thus having real-world consequences in their relationships among the community.

So what does this have to do with archaeology? Well, (warning: shameless self-promotion) in a book I published with my colleagues Alex de Voogt and Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games across Borders, we argued, in part, that the Egyptian board game senet offers evidence for this kind of functionality of games.

 

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Senet gameboard inscribed with the name of Amenhotep III, now in the Brooklyn Museum.

During the third millennium BCE, Egyptians were heavily active in the Levant (today’s Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel), mostly for trading purposes. One site, in particular, was important early on: Tel Arad.

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Archaeological remains at Tel Arad

This town flourished as it functioned as the middleman between Egypt and the copper mines in the Sinai Peninsula. Heavy interaction can be attested through the appearance of many Egyptian artifacts at the site. In addition, blocks of limestone that display the pattern of senet, three rows of ten spaces, were found in great number at the site. Interestingly enough, once Egyptians seized control of the copper mines, the game disappeared from the site. Instead, the game started to appear at sites closer to the coast, such as Tel es-Safi, as a result of a focus on maritime trade between Egypt and sites along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Senet games were also found at the site of Byblos, where a significant long-term Egyptian trading colony existed for the procurement of cedar, an important commodity for a nation with few natural sources of wood.

The changing geographical distribution of Egyptian style games may suggest that these objects served as objects to facilitate interaction between Egyptians and local peoples. A board game allows for people to build social relationships, even where there is a language barrier. When interacting with people from foreign lands, it is important to initiate some kind of social interaction and to do so in a way that allows for behavior outside what would normally be allowed. By playing a game, the players are allowed to come into contact with one another, break down some of the social boundaries that exist, and come to a judgment as to whether someone is trustworthy or not. This is why so many non-Duke fans hate Grayson Allen: he plays dirty, and we look at this as a reflection of his character. But in the case of Egyptians and Levantine peoples, it allowed them to initiate contact through which they could build mutually beneficial economic relationships. Once the Egyptians started looking elsewhere for their commodities, they no longer had a need for senet and stopped playing it.

So, it is probably a good idea for Ted Cruz to start a pickup basketball game with his colleagues, if it can help them interact better with each other. I would argue that it would be even better if he or his Senate colleagues started a game with senators across the aisle. Building those relationships with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum could go a long way to restoring the kind of collaboration that used to exist in that body.

That is, unless he likes to trip people like his doppelgänger does.

 

References:

Crist, W., A. de Voogt and A-E. Dunn-Vaturi. 2016. Facilitating interaction: Board games as social lubricants in the Ancient Near East. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 35(2): 179–96.

Malaby, T. 2003. Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City. Urbana, IL: Universitty of Illinois Press

Sebbane, M. 2001. Board games from Canaan in the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages and the origin of the Egyptian senet game.” Tel Aviv: 213–30.

Shai, I., H. Greenfield, J. Regev, E. Boaretto, A. Eliyahu-Behar, and A. Maeir. 2014. The Early Bronze Age remains at Tell es-Safi/Gath: An interim report. Tel Aviv 41: 20–49.

Tomasello, M. 2006. Why don’t apes point? In N. Enfield and S. Levinson (eds), Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition and Interaction. Oxford: Berg, 506–24.

Turner, V. 1982. Liminal to liminoid in play, flow, ritual: An essay in comparative symbology. In V. Turner (ed), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1–60.