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.

nubia-senet

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.

 

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