4000-Year-Old Board Game Uncovered By Archaeologists

The remains of the game found at the site

The remains of the game found at the site
Photo: Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology

In December 2021, a team of archaeologists working in Oman made the only type of discovery that would get their work covered on a site like this: they dug up a board game dating back approximately 4000 years. It’s thought it could be an ancient ancestor to Backgammon.

The dig (via Ars Technica), which was undertaken by the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, and Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Tourism, took place in the Qumayrah Valley, and made all kinds of cool (for archaeologists, anyway) Bronze Age discoveries, like some big towers, and evidence the settlement was part of the copper trade.

As the dig’s report so enthusiastically recounts, though, the best thing they found was a board game:

But the most unexpected discovery is not related directly to economy or subsistence. – In one of the rooms we’ve found… a game-board! – beams the project director. The board is made of stone and has marked fields and cup-holes. Games based on similar principles were played during the Bronze Age in many economic and cultural centers of that age. – Such finds are rare, but several examples are known from India, Mesopotamia and even the Eastern Mediterranean basin. The most famous example of a game-board based on a similar principle is the one from the graves from Ur, – explains the archaeologist.

Like the summary suggests, while the game found in the Qumayrah Valley is something of a mystery, it’s at least similar to the Royal Game of Ur, one of the most famous board games of antiquity. And that game has a hell of a story. Ars’s Jennifer Ouellette explains, while the game had been discovered a century ago, nobody knew how to actually play it until the 1980s. Then, “a curator at the British Museum named Irving Finkel translated a Babylonian clay tablet in the early 1980s that turned out to be a description of the rules.”

The actual clay tablet, dating to 177BC, that explained the rules to the Royal Game Of Ur

Once the rules had been discovered and people could play the game, it was quickly apparent that the Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, had either evolved into or had been replaced by the game we know today as Backgammon.

Sadly, the dig did not uncover any bronze shoes or windows.

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