My family is obsessive about playing games. As a little girl growing up in Minnesota, playing games with my grandparents and cousins was the activity we did most together – well, that and fishing. As an adult, then naturally, I played games with my kids from the time they were very young. Today, during Corona time, playing games with my grown adult children every day has helped to keep me sane. So I was excited to learn that an ancient game board was found near my home which is connected to one of the games I most played growing up.
In an excavation carried out over a 6 month period outside of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the Negev, many interesting archaeological finds were discovered. What grabbed the headlines was the earliest soap factory ever found, from the 9th century CE – about 1200 years ago. But what drew my attention were the games. Inside a wealthy building near the factory, were found game boards for “Windmill” and “Hounds and Jackals”. These two games may not be marketed by Milton Bradley, or even nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, but they were very popular, common games in the ancient world.
“Windmill”, also known as “nine-men’s morris”, is an abstract strategy game (think chess or go). These game boards are often carved into stones; and the game was popularized in the Roman period. It spread throughout the Roman empire, wherever Roman legionnaires had some free time on their hands, after conquering and building. In Israel I’ve seen these boards in the basement of the Sisters of Zion convent in Jerusalem’s Old City and in Zippori in the lower Galilee.
The second game board found in Rahat was “Hounds and Jackals”. This is an even older game originating in ancient Egypt around 4000 years ago. Other boards were found in earlier sites such as Megiddo and Beit Shean which had strong connections in the Bronze Age with Egypt. It is called “Hounds and Jackals” because one of the early sets, discovered in 1910 by Egyptologist Howard Carter, had game pieces with the heads of Hounds or Jackals, one set for each player. It is a race game, with players moving from a starting position to an ending, winning position through a track. In this track, the spaces are marked by holes where players placed their peg-like playing pieces. The board is similar to a cribbage board – the most common game I played with my grandmothers – with the notable difference that cribbage has 121 holes per player and “Hounds and Jackals” has 29 holes per player. (Another difference is that cribbage involves playing cards which were only invented in around the 9th century CE, while “Hounds and Jackals” probably used dice.)
I could go on and on about games, but back to archaeology….
The Rahat excavation, managed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and conducted by Bedouin residents, university students and students in pre-military preparation programs was supervised by Dr. Elena Kogen-Zehavi, Dr. Yael Abadi-Rice and Avinoam Lehavi. It’s nice to see women and minorities involved in archaeology.
It’s also interesting to find this large estate, with its soap making factory from the 9th century CE, a time period not usually associated with flourishing societies in the Negev. After the heyday of the Byzantine era, many historians paint the Negev during the early Moslem period as an unproductive periphery. Finding a wealthy ancient building in Rahat with a game collection, signifies that people had leisure time for games, and means that the previously held assumptions about this period need to be reexamined.
Games say a lot about people, and their culture. It’s true for my family today, and was true in the past. Even in places like 9th century CE Rahat.