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Neolithic Game Boards
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The quest for the oldest board game used to be clearcut but recently the waters have been muddied considerably by some neolithic finds in Jordan that appear to be gaming boards. The trouble is that no-one has a clue how to play them. In fact several similar boards can have been found in ancient archeological sites within Jordan. Most are fragmentary and but there are a couple of particular interest.
The first board is a limestone slab found at Ain Ghazal, which is on the outskirts of Amman, the capital of Jordan. It is dated at 5870BC, give or take 240 years and shows two rows of 6 depressions which converge i.e. they are not parallel although whether that is relevant or is simply due to a lack of care by the maker is unknown. It appears to be complete and measures 39 x 23cm (15 x 9 inches) at its widest point. Some historians have said that this board is an ancient version of Mancala. Initially, this author was sceptical of that claim because when one compares this board to a modern game from East or West Africa played with Banduc or similar seeds, the depresssions seem very shallow and could not have held many such pieces, a feature which is usually required in that game. But further analysis of modern Mancala variants reveals that some games are played with very small seeds or other types of pieces with hollows that are correspondingly fairly shallow and so perhaps this is not an obstacle to the theory, after all.
The next two slabs show are from the archeological site at Beida which is only a few miles from the ancient city of Petra. They are both broken but show again two rows of depressions with the additional feature of a snaking line connecting the hollows. This is assumed to be purely a decorative feature but there is certainly a theme being built.
The final board of primary interest is also from Beidha although frustratingly it is not illustrated. The description of the limestone slab is very intriguing because it sounds exactly like a modern day Mancala game: "having a single hollow at each end separated by two parallel rows of hollows".
The dating of Beidha has been a bit of a problem. Originally, it was thought to around the Middle of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. Recently, doubt has been cast on this and the date for the finds above are most likely to be in the terminal Pre-Pottery Neolithic period i.e. 7000 - 6500BC. Which, let's face it, is pretty old in the human history scheme of things.
Whether these tablets are games is not completely clear but most experts seem to think that they are. Assuming so, then what type of game is less apparent. If they are related to present games in any way at all, then the most likely candidate is Mancala. The history and origins of Mancala have always been the most difficult to glean of any game due to the fact that most of its game play has been with temporary materials that leave no historical evidence whatsoever. For example, play with seeds in hollows scooped in the earth or with shells in hollows scooped in a beach. So it is not unthinkable that the game has a history going back thousands of years without any evidence to show for it.
jm at tradgames.org.uk
Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.