Game board could be a missing link tied to the Egyptian Book of the Dead

A senet game board may represent the changing meaning of the ancient Egyptian game.

In the New Kingdom, the fate of the deceased in the afterlife was reportedly affected by success in playing senet with underworld opponents. Here, a game board for senet, though not the board from the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in California. (Image: © Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

A game board dating back to the reign of Pharaoh Hatshepsut may represent the conversion of the game deed from Fun Fun to religious symbol.

The deed dates back 5,000 years to the first dynasty of Egypt. The game was played on a board of 30 squares in the form of 3 x 10 rectangles. The exact rules were lost to history, but players had to move a number of pawns along the board, the moves being determined by shots of a series of two-sided bars. The squares were empty except for 26-29 squares containing the same progression of the symbols: one for goodness, one for water, one for number three, and another for number two.

During the period of the New Kingdom of Egypt beginning in 1550 BC, these game boards had acquired a religious symbolism that appeared in the Egyptian Book of the dead. The play seemed to represent the soul’s journey through the afterlife. Over time, the signs on the deed boards also became more elaborate.

But there are huge gaps in the deed’s historical record. For example, showing game boards and from the fourth and sixth dynasties (m.He. 400 years, M.He. Although there were grave carvings and pictures showing a time interval between 2613 and 2181), no archaeologist could find a known game board until this period, anthropologist Walter Crist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands wrote a new paper published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.

Now, a new review of a never-worked deed board from the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California, reveals a style of game board that could fill the gap between Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and the subsequent New Kingdom.

The exact age of the board is unknown. It was bought from a collection of British Antiquaries in 1947 and possibly taken from Egypt before the advent of modern archaeology, Crist wrote, when antiquities were removed from tombs and archaeological sites out of concern for their historical context. Although the board was wooden, It was never radiocarbon dated, so Crist could measure its age only by its style.

That style was intriguing. Over the long history of the deed, the direction of the card has changed. For most of ancient Egyptian history, the game began at the top left corner of the board and ended with ornate squares at the bottom right. For a time throughout the Middle Kingdom, ornate squares were placed at the top of the board, and play started at the bottom right and ended at the top left.

A painting in Nefertiti’s burial chamber shows the queen playing what may be a game of senet. (Image credit: The Yorck Project)

The San Jose game board shows this Middle Kingdom direction, but its decorated square markings are more complex than those on other Middle Kingdom playing cards. In the Middle Kingdom these signs were simple, usually consisting of X or karma signs. Signs by the New Kingdom were more complex. For example, the second and third-to-last squares on the board in the Middle Kingdom often contained two or three rows respectively. By the new Kingdom, the same squares may include depictions of two or three deities representing the spirit, or of two or three BA birds.

The San Jose board is marked with draft hieroglyphic lettering showing a symbol of kindness, a symbol of Water, Three sitting men, and two sitting men. The closest examples to such markings are the 18 between 1478 BC. it is found on a board from the Tomb of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, who ruled during the dynastic period. and 1458 BC another throne with similar markings has a darker history, but may come from the reign of Hatshepsut’s successor, Thutmose III.

The Middle Kingdom orientation and New Kingdom decorations suggest that the board at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum was a transitional step between simple senet games and the more decorative and religiously relevant games of later years, Crist wrote. The latest known game with the Middle Kingdom orientation is a sketch made of ink on a schoolchild’s writing tablet dating to Egypt’s 17th dynasty, about 70 years before Hatshepsut reigned and boards with markings like those on the Rosicrucian game board became the norm.

“[T]his game is a likely candidate to fill that stylistic gap,” Crist wrote. Radiocarbon dating, he added, could help nail down the age of the board and confirm whether it is, in fact, a gamer’s missing link.

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