Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Mystery of the Venafro Chess Pieces

A spectacular discovery was made in 1932 - several Arabic style chess pieces in pristine condition, recovered from (I believe) an equally pristine Roman era grave. (Image: The Venafro chess pieces, from Louis Cazaux's website on chess). I expect the discovery caused a great sensation among chess historians because, up to that point, it had been assumed that H.J.R. Murray (A History of Chess), the god of chess history, was right in his assertion that chess was invented in northern India sometime in the 6th century CE. But here were those Venafro pieces, throwing Murray's assertions right out the window! Part of the mystery would not be solved until 1994 when a tiny piece of one of the bone chess pieces was analyzed using the latest carbon-dating techniques. From the Encyclopedia Moderna (online): The Venafro chessmen The Venafro chessmen, discovered in 1932 in the southern Italian necropolis of Venafro, are among the most controversial chess-related archaeological finds of this century. For more than 60 years, archaeologists have formulated a variety of hypotheses to explain how bone chess pieces of Arabic shape were discovered in a tomb of Roman age. Some scholars claimed that the chessmen were indeed of Roman origin. The chess pieces are preserved in the Archaeological museum of Naples, where a bone fragment of 2 grams was collected for AMS analysis. AMS radiocarbon measurements yielded a calibrated age of 885-1017 AD (68 % confidence level) (Terrasi et al., 1994), supporting the view that this game was introduced to Central Italy during the Saracen invasions of the 10th century AD. Great mystery, indeed! How did those Islamic style chess pieces get into a Roman era grave? I haven't read anything about that online. Why not? Too esoteric? I would have though this is a story ripe for lots of articles. I suppose it has now been concluded that the pristine (i.e., undisturbed) Roman era grave was not so pristine after all, as there would be no other way to account for the presence of the chess pieces, which at the earliest were dated to 885 CE, long after the Roman era had passed into herstory. They must have been buried in the grave sometime after they were carved. Or maybe the chess pieces are embued with the ability to time travel? Or a time traveller from the "future" buried the pieces during the time the grave was new? One can go on and on with suppositions about how the Venafro chess pieces got buried in that Roman era grave. But the question remains. Why would someone bury the chess pieces to begin with, whether they were buried in 885 CE or in 1017 CE or somewhere in-between? I can think of two reasons one would bury something like those chess pieces (there is no dispute that they are chess pieces). Several ancient (and not-so-ancient) cultures have buried sacrifices made to deities. Many obviously brand-new objects have been excavated over the years that were buried intact, but sometimes smashed into pieces and then buried. When it hasn't been obvious that the objects were "treasure trove," archaeologists and anthropologists have concluded that these items were sacrifices and/or devotional offers to various gods and goddesses. The other reason to bury something is to hide it from others. I am assuming that a rational person would not go through the trouble of burying something that he or she did not consider valuable or, in some other way, worthy of being preserved as a memorial. For instance, the container holding the ashes of my dog Spencer, who died in 1999, are buried under a memorial birdbath in my backyard. Whenever I look at the birdbath, and I see it every single day, I think of Spencerdog. Could the Venafro chessmen be something buried centuries afterward as a memorial to the person in that grave? This raises so many questions - among which is the most important - that whoever buried those chess pieces knew that they were burying them at so and so's grave. Speaking of which, I have no idea who was buried in that grave. I do not believe I have read that information in a single article about the Venafro chess pieces. Might that information provide a vital clue? I have read in many descriptions of the Venafro chess pieces that they were carved out of bone (some descriptions say they were topped with ivory). I never though about just what this means. Then this morning, I learned in a totally unrelated email from dondelion that the Venafro chess pieces were carved from deer horn. It just so happens that Carlos Lascoutx has been posting a lot of information about deer and horns the last few days - and I did a post in response this morning - which dondelion could not have known about. That Old Goddess Magic at work? Deer imagery goes back many thousands of years in pre-history. For instance, I blogged about an image showing a Shaman either transformed into a "deer-man" or wearing deer antlers, and I posted this article about an unnamed goddess excavated in Iran - she is a pair of red deer horns! So - what about checking on old "deer horn" chess pieces? I found several references to this material being used at Dr. Louis Cazaux's website (I was amazed, actually). This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive study. I found these under the heading of "The First European Chess Pieces" by scrolling down the page and looking at the captions under the thumbnail images: (1) Chariot, deer bone or antler, 10th c., found at Loisy, Musée des Ursulines,Mâcon (2) King (?), deer bone or antler, 10th c., found at Loisy,Musée des Ursulines,Mâcon (3) Rook, deer bone, 978-1070, Pineuilh, Gironde, France (4) Scandinavian Knight, Bishop, Pawn, deer bone, Beginning 11th c., Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (5) Scandinavian or German Chessmen, deer bone, found at Ilot des Deux-Bornes, around Noyon, OiseBeg 12th c., Musée du Noyonnais, Noyon, France Several other pieces were identified as carved of "bone" but the type of bone was not specified. Perhaps this was not determined at the time the pieces were discovered and/or catalogued or tests to determine what type of bone have never been performed. I mean, what difference could it possibly make, right? Except it might be very important what materials were used to make old chess pieces. Just based on the admittedly unscientific information presented here by me and Carlos Lascoutx about antlers/horns/deer the significance of the ancient iconography is worth looking into further. Was there some ritual significance attached to using deer horn to carve chess pieces? Perhaps that is being too literal - how about a very old tradition of using deer horn to carve certain significant objects being passed on from generation to generation, and the reason why this was done had long since been lost under the gloss of Christianity and/or Islam? Sounds like a good PhD thesis! (antlers/deer/horns discussed in comments) (See image of deer horn goddess, above) See also


Judith Weingarten said...

Fascinating stuff, Jan. Since, as you rightly say, the grave could not have been 'pristine', it's entirely possible that the person burying the chess pieces dug down into it accidentally and may not even have know that she hit a grave.

As to why, it really depends on what else was buried at the same time as the chess pieces -- which we may never know. Reason enough, though, for someone to return to the excavation report and restudy the objects (if possible).

Jan said...

Hi Judith,

Can you steer me in the direction of how I might track down a copy of such a report? I've no idea where to begin!

carlos lascoutx said...

...oh, now i have your reference,
didn't before, lost in the stacks. ah, bone is offered to the gods, but rack antler was considered
a connexion to the gods, we know
from the tonalamatl/soulpapers
tlaoc,the raingod, was the deergod, that matlatl(N)=net,
the nomad hunting snare. deer culture begins when the 50k bc
glaciation emptys out europe
and cavers become nomads going
east, once you have snares you
have the possibility of games,
especially board games, chess
and its variations one of the oldest. deerhorn pieces, deer-
hide boards, easy to roll, the
arabs are the aryans, their beat
the silk trail, my mongolian
wordpost to you connects the
queen to the moon through the
moon, which can also swivel the
vowel to, ma(r)ze/mazatl(N)=deer.
once again the silk trail, the altai, deer culture, founder effect for haplo group K mtDNA,
the egyptians themselves, whom
the oera linda book says are
of the yellow race(their phrasing),
misused to be sure this tome,
but on migration details rings
true, and this east/west/east route
seems to be the highway from
which blessing such as chess flow
and are developed, given currency,
and deposited like alluvial fans
in civilizations along the way.
deer horn certainly establishes
chess as a nomad passtime before
it reached the palaces, altho
the mastiff/merze(Mongol)reference
can be both, once in the hands of
the palace, e.g., mastiffs hunting
lion on the persian stone friezes,
the game evolves from planetary
symbol to direct wargame, altho
the amerindian ballgame, ollama,
was the tale of planetary strife,
the twins fighting the lords of
xibalba for the resurrection of
their slain father, who had lost
a game to them and whose skull
(the scarab etymology comes to mind)was hung in a tree like a
gourd, and behind this struggle
is the venus twin analogy,
so games come down to us from the stars and planets, their god is
a night god, when they too are
played by nomadic travelers, not
ollama/tlachtli(N),of course, yet
the tlecotl(N)=rising line, where
the game begins, is said to divide
the host of night from those of day, and, the mayan word for the
game=pitz, which is the word for
the sound of the flute=pitza(N),
it must have been scored using
this instrument, more meaningful
than an umpires whistle perhaps.
yes, i think we can push chess
back quite a few millenia now we
have archaic materials. good work,
jan, and thanks for the hon. mention! oh, of course the arab
aryans are moon calendar people,
as the chinese emperor, wu tu,
561-578, was, so a study of moon
worship would bring the rise of
chess with it. now for a chorus
of kate smith and, when the moon comes over the mountain. hasta, carlos.

carlos lascoutx said...

...if the alani/massagetae deer
people, who went from massa/mazatl(N)to horse to cattle, were pushed
by the mongol swells from the sea of azov/lake meotis=meyaua otli(N)=the flowing road/otli(N) to the caucassus in 9-12c ce, and deerhorn
chess pieces start showing up in
europe in that period, is there a connexion? they are the most successful of the deer tribes,
form the christian kingdom of
alania in the caucassus, hmmm.
the queen=merze(Mong)=mastiff
(first a deer/mas-mazatl hound?)=
universal=nouian ixquich(N)=
cuadrado(squared, refering to
its moves, queen also, in cube).
queen=nohoi(M)=guard dog=
nouian(N)=wherever,on all sides
(partout/Fr). besides the mastiff,
it's prey, the lion/arslan(M)=
atl(N)=head,war,as in, atlatl(N)=
throwing stick, no atl/nauh(N)=know
mind=nous(gk)=the queen.
the bishop=teme(M)=camel=temo(N)=
the rook=tereg(M)=cart=
tetlecotiliztli(N)=draw a line,
game limit(cart used to place
stone boundary markers),complete break with someone,
the pawn=hu(M)=boy=poyaua(N)=
scatter clouds(a tlaloc reference
from deer culture to pawn formation).
the alani/massagetae were
horse, cattle and dogbreeders,
used the net in war almost
capturing an armenian king one
long-distance throw, sunworshippers
as all deer culture, tonatiuh=sun
tonalamatl(N)=booksouls, quite
possible they could have invented
chess, given the queen a mastiff, and dog is day10 of souls,
the middle, the aztec warsign
(without the dog), and deer/mazatl
is day7 in the tonalamatl/souls,
a calendar out of deer culture
it is, anyone capable of using
it, let alone invent it, is capable
of creating chess. the fact the tonalamatl disappeared from
eurasia, was in amerindia
3309bc, may be a surtax on the fortunes of war of a tribe who
were the best of their time, then
swept away by the mongols, as war
always preys on far finer culture than itself for being alien to its demi-urges.

carlos lascoutx said...

...the pawns are also puppys. the
heavy involvement, in the mongolian terminology, of the mastiff, alabai, alano monchina, mollosa dog in the game as queen,
from the same root,
king/queen, and now, hu(M)=poyaua(N)=
boy, puppy, page, the later mayan
being, poyoy(Mayan)=skunk, may point
to a bucolic origen for chess. the
alani supplied the persians with
chariots/carts and wardogs, the
chariot owes its start to cattle herders having to transport meat,
perhaps the mastiffs were employed
in hauling the carts, altho horse
would be first choice perhaps, and
also to establish boundarys when settled around the sea of azov,
alaunt=alan=alaua oalauh(N)=
the annointed, in this mix of dog
and gens name, alan appears to mean
the word, hallow, allow, alaua(N),
a reverential of water. the alans
may have passed the game of chess
to the persians, getting it from
the mongolians. what do you think of that theory?

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