Canaanites at play
Archaeology is all about impressive ruins and beautiful artifacts. At least, that’s the impression you may get reading about the most prominent archaeological sites around the world. Often all you hear about are huge walls, deep trenches, and gold rings, but the ancient world also abounds with everyday, mundane objects, such as tools, toiletries, and toys.
Such objects integral to daily life in the ancient world are discussed in the Archaeological Views column “Board Games in Biblical Gath” by Shira Albaz, Itzhaq Shai, Haskel Greenfield and Aren M. Maeir in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, where the authors present fragmentary finds of gaming boards, playing pieces, and throwing knucklebones. Excavated at Tell es-Safi and dating from the Bronze Age, these homely pieces of baked clay and animal bones attest to the popularity of ancient board games in Gath, a Philistine city and hometown of the biblical giant Goliath in the land of Canaan.
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“The most common board game in Bronze Age Canaan was the Game of 30 Squares, known as Senet in Egypt,” write the authors, identifying the pieces from Gath as a version of the game still largely popular in Egypt, Sudan, south Sinai and the Negev. “Because the earliest Egyptian example comes from a Predynastic tomb at el-Mahasna (dated to c. 3500 B.C.E.), some scholars believe that Senet originated in Egypt and was later introduced into Canaan as the Game of 30 Squares.”
It is noteworthy that the referenced pieces from el-Mahasna are not, strictly speaking, a true example of Senet, because unlike the canonical Senet that had three rows of ten, the example from the grave at el-Mahasna displays three rows of six playing fields. They may well represent a precursor of Egyptian Senet, but opinions vary. A recent interpretation even identifies the el-Mahasna board and playing pieces as an offering table with votive garlic bulbs.
To learn more about ancient board games in Bronze Age Canaan, read the Archaeological Views column “Board Games in Biblical Gath” by Shira Albaz, Itzhaq Shai, Haskel Greenfield and Aren M. Maeir in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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