Where the Ancient People Play: Board Games in an Ancient Cypriot Village

One of the reasons I chose to start writing about the archaeology of fun is to talk about my own research in a public and somewhat informal space. Since my PhD dissertation covered the topic of games in Ancient Cyprus, I thought it might be an interesting topic for non-archaeologists to read about.

One of my favorite things about being an archaeologist is the traveling that I get to do as a result of it. In addition to research and excavation, I travel a lot to different places to present my work at conferences throughout the world. Many of these places I probably wouldn’t necessarily choose to visit without a reason to go there.

Back in 2015 I participated in  a conference at the Medelhavsmuseet (that is, the Mediterranean Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. Stockholm turned out to be an awesome city, with surprisingly good food (meatballs, obviously, were one of my favorites), super nice people, and lots to do. It was also a fairly inexpensive trip (around $600 roundtrip direct flight from Newark!), so if you’re looking for a reasonably priced trip to Europe, I highly recommend it!

The conference itself focused on various topics related to the archaeology of Cyprus, which is my regional area of expertise. It was super exciting to attend a conference that specifically talked about the archaeology of Cyprus. Even more exciting was that the organizers asked participants to contribute chapters for a book, which was just published. This book, Ancient Cyprus Today: Museum Collections and New Researchcovers a range of topics from many time periods.  My contribution, “Playing Spaces: The Sociality of Games in Bronze Age Cyprus,” is Chapter 24 of the book.

One thing that I find very interesting about the archaeology of Cyprus is that is has produced the largest number of board games of any archaeological culture in the world. As of this post, there are over 400 known examples. Even more remarkable is that they were only first identified in the 1970s, by my undergraduate mentor Stuart Swiny. I’ll talk more specifically about the board games themselves in another post. For today, I want to talk about an aspect of games that I discuss in my chapter.

Because of the great number of game boards that have been found in Cyprus, I was able to examine the patterning in the places they were found. The most important thing for archaeologists is not necessarily the objects themselves, but their archaeological context: that is, where they were found, and what else was found in that place. By doing this, we are able to make conclusions about ancient life, rather than just finding cool things for museums.

It’s not really possible to look at patterning in games for other archaeological cultures, because so few games have been found elsewhere. As a result of the lack of high quality archaeological context for board games, the archaeology of games has lagged behind other aspects of life that archaeologists research. One reason I research this topic is because it is so overlooked.

Because of the lack of evidence, there was little precedent for how to develop a research project on ancient board games. In part, I drew inspiration from an article by Lynda Mulvin and Steven Sidebotham, who published a bunch of game boards from an Ancient Roman fortress at Abu Sha’ar, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. They classified the games they found there into three categories: portable, ad hoc (games that were made at the moment someone wanted to play, like graffiti), and purpose-made games, those which were manufactured to be located in a certain place.

This got me to thinking: Why do we play games in certain places?

Much of the time we play games at home, or at a party in someone else’s home. Sometimes people also play games in public spaces. I live in New York City, and many places you go, from Washington Square Park, to Union Square, to Bryant Park, people sit in these public places and play board games (often chess) with strangers. In both public and private spaces, people are using these games to connect with others. When we play at home or at a party, we are building and maintaining relationships with people that we either know, or who know people that we know. When people play in public, however, they are developing relationships with people they do not know, and are often doing it to develop some kind of prestige–this is why those dudes playing chess (which has prestige connotations on its own) always have the clock. It’s about the competition and the potential for building their status. You’ll also find people watching the game take place, emphasizing the prestige building potential of this social activity.


Chess: A Spectator Sport

This kind of prestige building has archaeological implications that I’ll talk about in another post. The first step to saying something about games is to determine where people were actually playing them. Interestingly, on Cyprus, games can be categorized similarly to those found at Abu Sha’ar in Egypt. There are portable games. There are games that were so large and heavy that they were probably meant to permanently located in one place.  And there are also  games that were placed on architectural features, probably graffitied there when someone decided to play at a certain moment.

Obviously, the presence of very heavy and the graffiti board games in a space demonstrates that the  games were played there. But how can we tell where portable games were played, if they could be taken anywhere?  One way is to look for multiple portable examples of the same game in the same space. This would suggest that either people brought games to this space to play, or that multiple games were kept there so that people could play them there. Another way would be to identify other kinds of activities that were acceptable companions to gaming, and see if portable games were also found with evidence for those activities (more about this in another post).

To see if we could see a pattern archaeologically, I used the Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BCE) village site of Sotira Kaminoudhia. as a test case.

This site is the one where I learned how to excavate way back in 2002, but more importantly it is a site on Cyprus from which 62 games were found. I wanted to see if I could find a difference between where single portable games were found and where heavy, graffiti, or groups of portable games were found. When looking at their distribution in the remains of buildings at the site, I found that, in most buildings that were identified as households, there was only one game. This makes logical sense: the group of people living in a household, most likely a family unit, would only need one board of a certain game to play. Most people I know don’t keep multiple copies of Clue or Monopoly around (ok, maybe different versions of them, but still). Multiple games and the heavy and graffitied games, however, came from  spaces that were interpreted as places where people gathered because they were usually larger, unroofed spaces and often had evidence for drinking. This suggests, then, that in the ancient world just as now, people played games in their homes as well as in public spaces.

The next step was to examine what other things did in the same spaces they played games, and how this changed through time, but this will be the subject of another post.

Have any thoughts about why people play games in certain places? Do you play games in public spaces? What’s your favorite place to play games? Drop a comment below!



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