4,000-year-old board game discovered in floor of shelter used by Bronze Age cattle herders
Dr Crist says boards gams were a “social lubricant” in ancient times. (Walter Crist, Courtesy of the director of the Gobustan State Historical and Cultural Preserve)
A series of marks in the floor of a rock shelter in Azerbaijan may look like an undecipherable ancient code, but one archaeologist says he has cracked it.
- Game was popular in ancient Egypt but there was no evidence of it being played in the Azerbaijan region until now
- Archaeologist says find suggests Bronze-Age nomads interacted with distant neighbours
- Dr Crist says researchers still cannot be sure of the rules of the game
Walter Crist, from the American Museum of Natural History, said it was a board game, played by ancient nomads who mustered cattle in the region roughly 4,000 years ago.
“Small depressions found pecked into bedrock as well as on stone slabs found during excavation are arranged in a recurring and unique pattern,” Dr Crist said.
“[It] is strikingly similar to the well-known game of 58 Holes, colloquially known as Hounds and Jackals.”
Hounds and Jackals was a game popular in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, a cultural hub in southwestern Asia, near modern-day Syria.
This version of Hound and Jackals dates back to the 13th Dynasty and was found in a Theban tomb.
Finding a 4000-year-old version of the game in Azerbaijan, in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Gobustan National Park, was something of a surprise, as there was no known evidence the game was played there during that time.
The discovery suggests there was contact between the ancient dwellers of the land and their distant neighbours.
“Bronze Age herders in that region must have had contacts with the Near Eastern world,” Dr Crist told Science News.
“Ancient games often passed across cultures and acted as a social lubricant.”
An imagining of Hounds and Jackals featured in 1956 film The Ten Commandments. (Paramount Pictures )
Dr Crist discovered the ancient game while searching for examples of Hounds and Jackals, spotting what looked like a version of the game in Azerbaijan in an online magazine.
He arranged to visit the site in photograph, but it had been dug up for a housing development by the time he arrived.
An official told Dr Crist there was a similar pattern in the famed UNESCO national park, with the American archaeologist immediately recognizing the markings when he visited the site.
Hounds and Jackals has been likened to an early version of backgammon, believed to be a two-player game with the goal of moving markers along a dotted track towards a finishing point.
As there are no boxes with instructions on the back, researchers can’t know the rules or end goal of the game for sure.
However, Dr Crist said the overarching goal of the act of playing the game was recreation and human connection.
“Moving stones in blank spaces on the ground has no real effect on your daily life, except for the fact that it helps you interact with another person,” he told Live Science.
“So, a game is a tool for interaction, kind of like language — a shared way of being able to interact with people.”