Board Games and Toys

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Board Games and Toys


Games. At ancient sites in the Near East, archaeologists have excavated board games consisting of playing boards and various objects that were thrown or moved. At Ur the dice were tetrahedrons. Their faces were not marked, but each die had its vertices shaved flat, with two of the four corners decorated or inlaid in some way to make them stand out. When rolled, each die had a fifty-fifty chance of coming up “marked” or “unmarked.” Later dice, probably of Indian origin, have been found at sites throughout Mesopotamia and have been dated to all periods. Made of bone, clay, stone, and even glass, they had the numbers one through six incised on them. Other thrown objects included knucklebones, throw sticks, and stones. Playing pieces came in various shapes, including circles, cones, and pyramids. Texts refer to them as dolls, birds, and dogs.

Twenty-Squares. Played by the rich and the poor, twenty-squares was a racing game for two people using seven black and seven white counters, which were moved according to the roll of the dice. Several twenty-squares boards owned by rich people were found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur (circa 2600 - circa 2500 b.c.e.). Among them was a board inlaid with a mosaic of shell, bone, lapis lazuli,

and red limestone. During the reign of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721–705 b.c.e.), guards of the palace at Khorsa-bad may have passed their time playing the game of twenty-squares on a game board scratched into the pedestal of one of the two bull colossi guarding the gates. Some board games bearing the imprimatur of the Assyrian king Esar-haddon (680–669 b.c.e.) have been found in his palace.

Senet. One of the most popular games found throughout the ancient Near East became known as senet in Egypt. Archaeological evidence of the game has been found at sites dating from prehistoric times through the Hellenistic period. In Egyptian the word senet means “to pass” or “to go by.” The rules have not been discovered. Apparently, two players throwing dice each moved four differently shaped game pieces around the board, which typically had thirty squares, although the number varied.

Other Games. The rules for “Pack of Dogs” have survived. Two lots boards, one connected with the twelve signs of the zodiac, have the rules of the game on their reverse sides. Eighty-four sections were drawn on the ground, and pieces called the eagle, raven, rooster, swallow, and another unidentified bird were moved according to the roll of the dice. This game is still played by women in the Jewish community of Cochin in southern India, where the game is called Asha.

Toys. Some toys were miniatures of the weapons used by adults, such as slingshots, bows and arrows, and boomerangs or throw sticks. Other toys included spinning tops, rattles, jump ropes (sometimes called “the game of Ishtar”), pucks and mallets, and hoops. Like their modern counterparts, Mesopotamian children liked to play “house” or “grown-up,” using dolls and toy animals as well as miniature furniture such as tables, beds, and stools. Model vehicles—including miniature carts, wagons, chariots, and ships—have also been found. It is not clear, however, whether all were toys for children or objects associated with cultic-magical rituals, such as gifts to the gods.


Paul Collins, “Game board and fourteen gaming pieces,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), p. 101.

Wolfgang Decker, Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt, translated by Allen Guttmann (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992).

Irving J. Finkel, Ancient Board Games (London: Welcome Rain, 1998).

William W. Hallo, “Games in the Biblical World,” in Avraham Malamat Volume, edited by Shmuel Ahituv and Baruch A. Levine, Eretz-Israel Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies, 24 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993), pp. 83–88.

Anne D. Kilmer, “Games and Toys in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Actes du XIIe Congres International des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques, 4 volumes, edited by Juraj Pavúk, Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques (Bratislava: Institut Archéologique de 1’Académic Slovaque des Sciences, 1993), I: 359–364.

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).

Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (New York: Facts on File, 1966).