Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Author Fudging on Gameboard Fragment in Article on Harappan Site

All was well reading this interesting article at Frontline online magazine (published by The Hindu):

The rise and fall of a Harappan city
Volume 27 - Issue 12 :: Jun. 05-18, 2010

...until the very end of the article, when a photograph of part of a gameboard carved on a block of stone, holding some game pieces, was published as "A game, apparently involving a puzzle, found at the site." No attribution of the photograph other than "ASI" was given, no discussion of the gameboard fragment, or the gaming pieces, or the circumstances under which this board was recovered, nor a suggested age for the artifacts, was given.  This is the photograph from the article, credited to ASI.  Now, I'm not saying it's so, but it almost does look like a photo that was cribbed from some museum's website.

Come on dude, who do you think you're kidding? That gameboard fragment certainly looks like a part of a 20-squares game, played in Sumer, Egypt and throughout the Middle East. The game pieces resemble Egyptian "spool and reel" game pieces. The existence of these fragments in Dholavira, now identified as one of the five largest Harappan sites, is fascinating and deserves further research. But the author took a cheap shot when he tossed the photograph of the fragmentary gameboard and pieces into this article, with no further explanation. A "puzzle" - yeah, right. I'm sure Indian archaeologists know about the 20-squares game, and about trade. Now THAT would be a story to develop - talk about the trade among the great cultures of the time and how games travelled with the merchants from place to place.

Leonard Woolley is credited with excavating perhaps the oldest-known examples of the 20-squares game, at Ur ("royal tombs of") dated to about 2600 BCE.  Unfortunately the wood that the boards was made out of had long disintegrated, but the intricately carved ivory, shell, stone and metal insets that decorated the boards were meticulously preserved, so much so that the gun-ho "archaeologists" of the day were able to reconstruct what they looked like.

A well-preserved wooden 20-squares gameboard (the serpent gameboard) was excavated from Shar-i Sokhtah near the borderlands of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1970's I believe, and dated to about 2400 BCE.  Also known as the "Burnt City," Shar-i Sokhtah was a trading hub as well as a center of decorative arts and crafts.  Image:  "Evidence of Western Cultural Connections from a Phase 3 Group of Graves at Shar-i Sokhta", M. Piperno, S. Salvatori, Mesopotamien und Sein Nachbarn, Band 1, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 1997, pgs. 79-84, Tafel XXII. The illustration (Fig. 4) is described as "The wooden gaming board found in grave IUP 731 at Shahr-i Sokhta. The board features an engraved serpent [on a rectangular board] coiling around itself for 20 times, thus producing 20 slots for the game."

The Egyptians were fond of the game and often put it on one side of a dual-game board, with senet (30-squares) on the other side.  Image: Oriental Institute OIM 371, 20 square game.  Acacia wood, copper.
New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-19, ca. 1570-1069 B.C.

All of this is well-documented in archaeological archives, and one does not have to be a "games expert" to know about these famous finds or do an eyeball comparison of these boards to figure out what the stone gameboard fragment found at Dholavira most likely was. 

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