Almost 30 years after its discovery, a small sandstone figurine unearthed in Jordan has been identified as perhaps the oldest chess piece discovered to date.
As John Oleson, a researcher at Canada’s University of Victoria, reported during the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research late last month, archaeologists found the carved piece of white sandstone while conducting excavations at Humayma, a former Islamic trading post in Jordan, in 1991.
Initially, Oleson writes in his presentation abstract, he and his colleagues thought the two-horned object, which measures less than an inch high, resembled an altar created by the Nabatean civilization. But after further examination, he is now convinced the carving is a “rook” or “castle” chess piece, as it closely resembles other ivory, stone and wooden rooks found at later sites in the Islamic world.
“This shape is standard for early Islamic pieces right through the 13th [or 14th] century,” Oleson tells Haaretz’s Ariel David.
Per Science News’ Bruce Bower, the potential chess piece dates to between 680 and 749 A.D. At the time, the powerful Abbasid family owned and operated the Humayma trading outpost.
The rook’s discovery doesn’t change what researchers know about the origins of chess, but it does shed some light on how quickly the game gained traction and who exactly played it. David reports that chess was likely invented in India during the sixth century, spreading to Persia and throughout the Muslim world before eventually arriving in Europe.
The Humayma rook is carved of local sandstone, meaning the individual who owned it was likely not a social elite.
“In the literature, naturally they talk about the elites playing with chess pieces made of ivory, ebony, gold or rock crystal,” Oleson explains to David. “The world of low-class players doesn’t appear in that kind of literature so it’s good to have an archaeological record.”
According to the abstract, Humayma was a trading post located between Petra, capital of the Nabatean kingdom, and the Red Sea port of Aqaba on a trade route known as Via Nova Traiana.
Oleson writes, “Since the game probably was carried westward from India by the movement of merchants and diplomats, it is no surprise that early evidence for it should be found at a site on the busy Via Nova Traiana.”
The chess piece may boast ties to one of the most notable families in Islamic history. As David reports, Humayma was the hometown of the Abbasid clan, which overthrew the Ummayad caliphate in 750 and ruled much of the Islamic world until 1258 A.D.
While living in Humayma, the Abbasids kept tabs on events occurring in Syria and Iraq—including, in all likelihood, the emergence of a new game called chess.
“Early historians of the Abbasid family say the revolution was plotted in the little mosque next to the manor house,” says Oleson to David. “They talk about merchants coming around and giving information about events in Damascus and what the Umayyads were up to. So the Abbasids were in a place where they would have learned about chess fairly early on, fairly easily.”
Speaking with Bower of Science News, Oleson notes that chess quickly became “very popular in the early Islamic world,” serving as a pastime that helped bridge differences between the rich and the poor, as well as Muslims and Christians.
The two-pronged Humayma rook’s abstract shape is a variation on the chess piece’s initial form: a chariot pulled by two horses. Per Haaretz, the rook’s appearance shifted upon its arrival in the Islamic world, which prohibited the use of figurative images, but the piece retained its original name—rukh, or “chariot” in Persian. When Europeans adopted the game centuries later, players interpreted the prongs as masonry work on forts or towers, and so the rook became the castle seen today.
Given the fact that archaeologists don’t know exactly when the sandstone rook was created, other specimens recovered may have a better claim to the title of “oldest known chess piece.”
A set of figurines found in Uzbekistan in 1977 dates to around 700 A.D., for example, and in 2002, archaeologists in Albania unveiled a sixth-century ivory piece unearthed in a Byzantine palace. The figure resembles a modern chess piece, complete with a cross on top, and would predate the widely accepted arrival of chess in Europe by 700 years. Critics, however, point out that chess was likely not even invented at this point in history.
Oleson tells David there are probably older chess pieces out there still waiting to be found. After all, the strategic showdown was invented at least a century before an early chess aficionado carved the Humayama rook.