Monday, August 3, 2009

The Mystery of the Venafro Chess Pieces - Part 2

I have been hunting around on the internet for further information about the Venafro chess pieces and the circumstances surrounding their discovery in 1932 in Venafro, Italy. A little bit of background information I learned - a very general overview - about Roman burial practices: Prior to about 550 BCE, burial was the preferred custom. Cremation became the favored practice of the Romans after circa 550 BCE, but with the rise of Christianity in the 3rd-4th centuries CE, burial once again became the preferred custom. In the cremation practiced by the Romans, the body would be burned and also some of the decedent's personal possessions. Wine was poured on the fire to put it out and cool down the ashes, after which a close relative (if not the wife or mother of the decedent) would gather up the decedent's bones and ashes and place them in an urn, which would then be entombed, placed in a memorial niche in a communal or family burial ground, or removed back to the home of a close relative. Burial sites were placed outside the city walls. The wealthy purchased private lots along roads and highways; the less well off were buried in community burial facilities (we call them cemeteries today) and the poorest of the poor were evidently buried in open pits with lots of others, and then burned. There is an ancient necropolis outside modern-day Venafro, but I cannot say if the urn burial of the story was discovered there. The following article by Michael Mark was published at Dr. Louis Cazaux's website on chess history. I briefly met Mr. Mark in Amsterdam in November, 2001 while attending the IGK Symposium on chess history held at the Max Euwe Center. I have excerpted the pertinent information Mr. Mark relates regarding the Venafro chess pieces: Ancient Boardgames in Perspective 20 April, 2007 The Beginnings of Chess Michael Mark   The second find is said to have been made in Venafro, the site of a small settlement in the district of Campobasso in southern Italy. It appears that in 1932 builders were sinking a well when, at a depth of about three metres, they shattered an urn, revealing human bones. At that stage the authorities were called in, and various objects were removed.(38) Either the authorities assumed or they were told by the builders that the chessmen came from within the urn, although their recent carbon dating to a much later period, to which I shall return, makes this improbable. The pieces are not objects which would have prompted builders to summon archaeologists had they been found at an earlier stage of the dig and it seems very possible that this was the case. The museum authorities in Naples, to whom the discoveries were handed, had no idea what they were. It was only some years later that they were examined and described in Elia 1939, where they were treated as Roman on the assumption that they came from the urn. Subsequently, Fuhrmann 1941 drew attention to similar pieces in glass in the Cairo Museum. These had previously been dated in Lamm 1930 to around the tenth century ad. According to Fuhrmann 1941, they were made using an art and technique which are pre-Islamic and of which there are no examples dating from later than the first centuries of the Roman empire. The basis for this assertion, however, is unstated and unclear, and according to Allan 1995 the marvered glass used for these chessmen was used in Egypt and Syria from about the twelfth century to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. Controversy over the Venafro pieces continued over half a century, until the museum authorities in Naples were persuaded to have them carbon-dated. This was carried out in laboratories in Naples and Sydney, using the accelerator mass spectrometry method on a fragment of about 1 gram taken from one of the major pieces, and the results were reported with a history of the pieces in Gli Scacchi di Venafro 1994. The results of the two tests, which correlated closely with each other, were that there was a 68% probability that the pieces were from the period ad 885–1017, with a 95% probability that were from one of the periods ad 781–-1044, ad 1104–1112 and ad 1147–1152. It is not clear from the report why the two later periods totalling thirteen years are included when the intervening periods of ad 1045–1103 and 1113–1146 are omitted. ************************************************************************************** Note 38: O. Elia (1939), ‘Un Gioco di Scacchi di Eta Romana’, Bolletino del Museo dell’ Impero Romano 10: 57–63. Here is the citation for the report on the carbon dating tests: Terrasi F., Campajola L., Petrazzuolo F., Brondi A., Cipriano A., D’Onofrio M., Hua Q., Roca V., Romano M., Romoli M., Tuniz C. and Lawson E. (1994) L’Italia Scacchistica 1064, 4860. I believe that both of these articles are in Italian, and so they would be of no use to me since I do not know that language. Is there any chance that there are English translations available of one or both items??? (Probably not, but I ask anyway). Or reports on the excavation in English???
Mr. Mark thinks it likely that workers on the site of the excavation for the well came across the Venafro chess pieces - at some level prior to where the burial urn was smashed into with the digging equipment - and he assumes one or more of the workers removed the pieces without calling the authorities. This kind of thing happens all the time when relics are come across while digging for sewers, wells, underground trains, etc. I've read lots of reports about items being tossed aside as part of rubble to be buried in a landfill or dumped into the ocean because contractors don't want to be bothered with shutting down their work for an archeological dig (time is money, as the saying goes). Or the pieces were spirited away by workers who (particularly today) were savvy that such items might have some kind of worth to somebody. Or some combination of both. Impossible to know without further information what may have been the case when the pieces were uncovered from the Venafro burial - statements from the workers, for instance (although any statements given may have been colored with the wish of obscuring the true circumstances of how the pieces were found, for reasons of self-preservation). Questions begetting more questions! Why, if one or more of the workers removed the pieces either with the intention of dumping them or hiding them as potentially valuable items, did one or more of those workers then turn the pieces over to the authorities? Were all of the pieces turned over to the authorities??? Is is possible that some savvy workman held back one or more of the pieces and that today, they are part of one or more private chess collections? Is it possible that one or more pieces still exist out there - somewhere - stashed away by one of the workers (possibly buried?) and then never recovered - waiting to be discovered for the next excavation project a thousand years from now?


Judith Weingarten said...

Given what Mr Mark says, it seems very unlikely that there is any solid information on the excavation. It sounds like a 'rescue' find and these are very rarely published at all.

I've searched in Italian and found the radiocarbon dating report (with some background history): Gianfelice Ferlito, SVELATO IL MISTERO DEGLI SCACCHI DI VENAFRO who notes that this part of Italy was often attacked by Saracen raiders during the 9th & 10th centuries -- which nicely fits the radiocarbon dates.

He also gives a reference to a long article about the Venafro pieces in English by Claire O'Brien, in Science of 26 August 1994. It appears on their webpage Checkmate for Chess Historians. I have no access to this journal. Perhaps someone on your blog would like to follow this up and purchase the article.

I hope this helps.

Jan said...

Judith, thank you so much for these leads to materials you found online. I will definitely check them out, and probably purchase the "Checkmate for Chess Historians" article. It will be a good addition to my fledgling research/chess library.

Ferlito has written several articles and papers, in Italian, about the ancient history of chess and chess pieces. His work has been featured in several "green books" issued by the IGK (Initiative Group Koenigstein)over the years. He has published several items on the internet, opening his research to everyone, which is very helpful to people like me (interested amateurs).

That is why it is so important that professionals like you and Dr. Gianfelice Ferlito host websites and/or freely publish articles and information on the internet that provides valuable insights into your areas of expertise and knowledge.

Thanks again, Judith.

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