Have you ever wondered why virtually all Hnefatafl setups are shaped in a form of a four-direction pointing cross surrounded by attackers? The answer has been proposed by the Henfatafl grandmaster, Adam Bartley, in 2015 in a post on the Aage Nielsen Hnefatafl Forum. He proposed that Hnefatafl represents a siege of the Viking Ring Fortress, where the king and his defenders are trying to escape from the fortress and the attackers are trying to capture the king.
Viking Trelleborg Fortress at Slagelse, Denmark. Note the circular rampart, ditch, and buildings. Photo: Anne-Christine Larsen.
There are 7 known Viking Ring Fortresses that have been identified to date, located in Denmark and Sweden. The most famous one being The Trelleborg Fortress at Slagelse, Denmark. All ring fortresses are circular in shape with roads and gates pointing in the four cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. When the fortress is surrounded all attackers have to block all of the four gates to prevent escape from the inside the fortress.
Viking Fyrkat Fortress at Hobro, Denmark. Note the circular rampart, ditch, and buildings. Photo: Esben Schlosser Mauritsen.
Adam Bartley overlayed Hnefatafl setups over the photo of the Trelleborg Fortress and the layout matches perfectly.
Overlay of Hnefatafl – Alea Evangelii Setup onto the Viking Trelleborg Fortress Aerial View Photo by Adam Bartley.
Overlay of Hnefatafl – Tawlbwrdd Setup onto the Viking Trelleborg Fortress Aerial View Photo by Adam Bartley.
So next time you play Hnefatafl remember that it is not just an abstract game, it is a reenactment of a Viking siege of a Ring Fortress.
A gaming board of Hounds and Jackals, also known as, The Game of 58 Holes, carved into stone in a rock shelter at the Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan, was found and identified by Walter Crist of American Museum of Natural History. His findings were recently published in a paper, A Near Eastern Game in the Caucasus? New Evidence from Eastern Azerbaijan, in November, 2018, by ASOR.
Irving Finkel, the curator of the cuneiform inscriptions in the British Museum, and an ancient games historian, does a playthrough of the Royal Game of Ur with a YouTuber, Tom Scott, who never played this game before. They play according to Finkel’s rules, which in my opinion, are nowhere near as exciting as Dmitriy Skiryuk’s rules, but nevertheless still interesting to watch.
In the past week there has been a lot of buzz on the internet about the Poprad Game Board, which was found in Poprad, Slovakia, back in 2006, in a tomb of a Germanic chieftain, who served in the Roman army as a mercenary, called foederatus, and dated to 375 CE. The reason for the buzz is because the game board is going on display at the Podtatranské Museum in Poprad later this year.
Poprad Game Board with 17×18 grid.
The game has still not been officially published, although a scholarly article by Ulrich Schaedler, the gaming expert who analyzed the game, is in the works. The game appears to be a version of the Roman game Ludus Latrunculorum (aka Latrunculi), but what makes this particular board unique is that it has a much larger grid of 17×18 cells, where the more typical Latrunculi boards have grids 7×8, 8×8, or 9×10. If this game board is truly Latrunculi, then it is the largest board for this game that has ever been found anywhere. The game was found with black and white glass playing pieces, typical of Latrunculi.
If you have your own ideas of what this game board might be please post your thoughts. Many people already have mentioned that it looks a lot like Chinese Go, however as far as we know, Go was not known in the Roman world, and so this would be highly unlikely.
Since my last post, about the Game from the Tomb of Puabi in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, I have discovered that there were two other games found in the same cemetery, in other graves, which are basically the same game as this one, although with slightly different designs. Both of those games, are kept in the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, and their high resolution photos are not available yet. Since the museum was looted in 2003, and was closed until 2015, it is not clear if these games survived and are in the museum now, or not. Per various rumors on the web, The National Museum of Iraq is currently in the process of digitizing all of the artifacts and is scheduled to publish the photos online by the end of 2018. Hopefully, this will actually happen, and then I can more clearly reproduce the game boards. Until then, I will refer to the lower quality photos published in 1934 by the British archaeologist who found them, Sir Leonard Woolley, in his various books (see bibliography).
One game (Ur Artifact U11162), has the same 3×4 grid of 12 squares, with tiles of lions and deer, and a single rosette. It was found with a total of 13 tiles, 2 rosettes, and 9 animals. 12 tiles were assembled into a single block and the last remaining rosette tile was left out by the restorers. Clearly this game was left unfinished or got broken at some point in time. Woolley wrote that the game from the Tomb of Puabi that is now kept in the Penn Museum (Ur Artifact U9776) was found with 12 tiles with animals, and 2 tiles with rosettes, and only 12 out of the 14 tiles were reassembled by the restorers, and they chose to reassemble only the animals tiles and leave the rosettes out.
12 Squares Board with Animals and Rosette (Ur Artifact U11162), kept in the National Museum of Iraq (IM 8204 – IM 8212).
The other complete, although damaged, game (Ur Artifact 10557), has the same board of 20 squares as the Royal Game of Ur, in the same shape, and it has the same tiles with gazelles, deer, and bulls, as well as rosettes. This game board came with a full set of playing pieces, 7 of which were squares with 5 dots on them, just like the Royal Game of Ur, and 7 had animals drawn on them.
Royal Game of Ur with Animals (Ur Artifact U10557), kept in the National Museum of Iraq (IM 8221).
This led me to conclude that the two games of 12 squares are really just unfinished boards of the Royal Game of Ur, where the larger block has been completed, but the bridge and the smaller block have not, although separate tiles from them were left near by.
Finally, there is a fragment of another game with animals (Ur Artifact U9112), which was found in the Tomb of Puabi as well, where the left column of the larger block has been assembled and has a border next to it with eyes similar to the border on the Royal Game of Ur. All 4 animals on this fragment are facing to the right, and if we compare them to the other 12 square section found in the same tomb, they have matching animals facing to the left, which were clearly located on the right column of the large block of the Royal Game of Ur with Animals.
Left Column of the Large Block Fragment of the Gaming Board with Goats (Ur Artifact U9112), kept in the National Museum of Iraq (IM 4177).
Originally, it is possible that the rules of all of the versions of the Royal Game of Ur were very simple and most tile designs had no significance, except for the rosettes which gave the player a second turn. The game was played in the exactly the same simple manner as Aseb. However, I would like to work out a more complex set of rules of the animals version of the Royal Game of Ur, similar to the standard Royal Game of Ur with dots patterns, that was worked out by Dmitriy Skiryuk (Дмитрий Скирюк). Since the tiles pattern and markings are not the same on the two games it would make sense that the rules would be different and complex to make use of each tile design. I will be working out the correct tile pattern on the board and the rules of the game over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.
- Woolley, Leonard. Ur Excavations: Volume II, The Royal Cemetery: A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated Between 1926 and 1931. Publications of the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania, 1934. Volume 1. Text.
- Woolley, Leonard. Ur Excavations: Volume II, The Royal Cemetery: A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated Between 1926 and 1931. Publications of the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania, 1934. Volume 2. Plates.
- Woolley, Leonard. The Development of Sumerian Art. Faber and Faber Limited, 1958.
In the Penn Museum, in Philadelphia, there is an obscure game that was discovered in the Royal Tombs of Ur, in particular in the Tomb of Puabi. The Tomb of Puabi was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley, between 1922-1934, and according to the notes in the Penn Museum, this particular game was found in 1928. The tomb is dated to 2600-2450 BCE. Most items were found intact. No one really knows who Puabi was, although she was definitely very wealthy and had an official title, which is why often she is called a queen. Currently, the discovered items are split up between the British Museum, the Penn Museum, and the Baghdad Museum in Iraq.
Game from the Tomb of Puabi in the Penn Museum, B16742. Photo: Penn Museum.
This particular game (object B16742) was broken when it was found and the tiles were glued by the restorers in a kind of random pattern. Each tile has a picture either of a gazelle, a bull, or a goat. There are 12 tiles total in a grid of 3×4. Most tiles seem to be matching pairs of the same animal, one facing to the right and the other to the left. Although out of the 12 found tiles, only about 6 of them match exactly. There were no playing pieces found with the board. No one has ever attempted to try to resurrect the rules of this game. Even the game itself has not seen much light of day, being not on display in the museum for most part.
Game from the Tomb of Puabi in the Penn Museum, B16742. Photo: Penn Museum.
The sides of the game board have a similar pattern of decorations as the Royal Game of Ur, which was found in the same set of tombs, and probably used similar playing pieces. I am currently experimenting with a friend on trying to play this game in various ways to see if we can somehow resurrect the rules and make this game live again.
- Zettler, Richard L. and Lee Horne. Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1998. p. 60.
People have been fascinated with board games for a very long time. One of the oldest books written about board games is a book called Libro de los Juegos, or Libro de Axedrez, Dados e Tablas, The Book of Games, or The Book of Chess, Dice and Tables, commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile, Galicia and León in Toledo, Spain, in 1283.
Detail of Libro de los Juegos, folio 1 recto, Escorial Manuscript.
The original manuscript of the book from 1283 is kept in the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Escorial Monastery Library) in Madrid, Spain. It is an illuminated manuscript with beautiful paintings of games and players. Another manuscript copy, made in 1334, is kept at the Real Academia de la Historia (Royal Academy of History Library) in Madrid, Spain.
An English translation of the book has been published on the internet in 2003 by a doctorate student from University of Arizona, Sonja Musser Golladay, called Alfonso X’s Book of Games – Translated by Sonja Musser Golladay, 2003. Additionally, Sonja Musser Golladay published her PhD Dissertation on the Book of Games in 2007, called Los libros de acedrex dados e tablas – Historical, Artistic and Metaphysical Dimensions of Alfonso X’s Book of Games.
Detail of Libro de los Juegos, folio 17 verso, Escorial Manuscript.
Another article in Spanish that contains many high resolution images from Escorial manuscript is Fernández Fernández, Laura, Libro de axedrez, dados e tablas: Ms. T-I-6, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de El Escorial: estudio codicológico. In Libro de los Juegos de Ajedrez, Dados y Tablas de Alfonso X el Sabio. Scriptorium, 2010. pp. 69-116.
I came across two videos of Dmitriy Skiryuk explaining in Russian the rules of Oware – a game from the Mancala family, which is over 7000 years old. He also demonstrates two different beautiful sets of Oware that he manufactures in his workshop. If you would like to order any of them you can contact him on his VK page.