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These Complex, Beautiful Board Game Pieces Are 5,000 Years Old

With pigs and pyramids and dog-shaped tokens, what kind of game might they have been playing?

The Royal Game of Ur is one of the oldest known board games, but newly discovered pieces may be even older. Photo: The British Museum

If you think that board games with fancy pieces and weird dice and other complex features are a relatively modern invention, archaeologists would like to have a word with you. Over the years, field research has unveiled the complexity of ancient gaming. Today, Discovery News is reporting on what may be some of the oldest gaming pieces ever found:

Found in a burial at Başur Höyük, a 820- by 492-foot mound near Siirt in southeast Turkey, the elaborate pieces consist of 49 small stones sculpted in different shapes and painted in green, red, blue, black and white.

“Some depict pigs, dogs and pyramids, others feature round and bullet shapes. We also found dice as well as three circular tokens made of white shell and topped with a black round stone,” Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University in İzmir, Turkey, told Discovery News.

The pieces date to around 5,000 years ago, they say, and were dug up in two sites, one in Syria and one in Iraq. The region is known as the Fertile Crescent and is traditionally thought to be one of the birthplaces of modern agricultural human societies. Discovery has a whole photo gallery showcasing the pieces.

The pieces are old, really old. But there’s another game, the Royal Game of Ur, that’s about contemporary—it dates from around 4,800 years ago in southern Iraq. And then there’s an Egyptian game, Senet, that is at least that old, if not older. Researchers think that basic board games may have been invented up to 11,000 years ago.

According to a story in Discovery News from last year, early board games were a status symbol:

“Many of the first board games appear to have been diplomatic gifts to signify status,” co-author Mark Hall told Discovery News. “We have early examples of quite splendid playing pieces belonging to elite, privileged people.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

Playing Pandemic, the Board Game

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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