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.

1280px-SenetBoard-InscribedWithNameOfAmunhotepIII_BrooklynMuseum.png

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.

SenetGameboard1-ROM.png

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.

 

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