Friday, June 8, 2007
What's the Oldest Evidence of Chess? - Part 2
The archaeologists' conclusion that the Butrint artifact was a chess piece drew gasps of horror from most traditionalist chess historians. The Butrint artifact cannot be chess, they say, because chess may not have even been invented at the time; furthermore, they say, since there is only one such piece, it could be anything - it is probably a "finial."
It's doubtful that anyone will ever be able to pinpoint an exact date when chess was invented. However, that hasn't stopped people from trying! In the late 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, it was practically stated as fact that chess was invented in what is now part of Pakistan (pre-partition historians refer to this area as "northern India"), sometime during the 6th century CE. This date is used in H.J.R. Murray's work "A History of Chess," which is basically a chess historian's bible, and has been repeated ad nauseum on the internet. Since Murray's time, though, the possible date of the invention of chess has been pushed back a bit and most chess historians now accept a date somewhere in the middle to late 5th century CE. Well, guess where that puts the invention of chess - between 450 to 500 CE. According to news reports at the time of the discovery, the Butrint king is securely dated to 465 CE because of a distinctive type of Roman pottery found in the same level of ruins and some recovered coins.
What does current published archaeological and literary evidence reveal as to how old chess is?
The earliest "unambiguous" written reference to chess is, according to the traditionalists, in the Pahlavi (middle Persian) work Wizârišn î chatrang ud nihišm î nêw-ardaxšîr (The explanation of Chess and the invention of Nard), also called "Mâdayân î chatrang" or simply named "Chatrang nâmag" (The Book of Chess, per Murray), dating to about 600-620 CE.
Other than the Butrint piece, currently the earliest known chesspieces (chatrang pieces) were found at Afrasiab, near Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Those pieces are a king, chariot, vizier, horse (knight-image above), elephant, and two soldiers, all made of ivory. The Afrasiab discovery is significant because the number of pieces found and their configuration allowed chess historians to unequivocally declare that they were, indeed, chess pieces, albeit of the "figural" kind. That the pieces were figural and not abstract could reasonably suggest that the pieces are pre-Islamic, because of Islam's emphasis on not making "images" of living things.
The Afrasiab pieces are dated to about 760 AD because a coin, dated to 761 CE, was found with the chesspieces. The chess pieces could not, therefore, be any younger than the coin, but they could be older than the coin. This assumes that the excavated layer had not previously been disturbed, so that there is no possibility that the coin could have been introduced into a much earlier (or later, for that matter), layer of archaeological deposit.
H.J.R. Murray said that northwest India (ancient "Hind") was where chess originated, and for the better part of the 20th century, most agreed with him. However, there are other possibilities. A strong case can be made that proto-chess first arose in ancient China. There are literary references to such a game that predate the "Chatrang namag" by a couple hundred years. The great scholar Joseph Needham was of the opinion that chess was a Chinese invention. See his comments at Goddesschess (a large PDF file, will be slow-loading for dial-up users).
And our Chief, the late Ricardo Calvo, suggested that Persia itself might be the home of chess. See his comments at Goddesschess. I have been researching rather obscure and esoteric matters Persian that might support this hypothesis for the past several years. A woman's work is never done...