In the age of video games, board games might not be the popular pastime they once were. But they have a venerable history.
Board games originate thousands of years ago as a spare-time preoccupation of the upper-castes of civilizations from South America to China, Egypt and northern Europe.
Each ancient civilization had their own board game of choice. In the Egyptians case it was senet, a complex contest of chance that dating from as long ago as 3500 BC represents the oldest board game in history. The most famous senet board yet discovered comes from the tomb of the legendary pharaoh Tutankhamun. Made of gorgeous hand-carved ivory with ebony veneers and fittings, its arguably the finest example of a board game ever found.
Its closest rival is the Lewis Chessmen a set of 93 chess pieces of Norse origin, also individually hand-carved from ivory. Dating from the 12th century AD, they were found on the Scottish island of Lewis, and may be the only complete medieval examples in existence of what would one day become one of the worlds most popular and enduring board games.
Which will be the first to bring its opponent to checkmate in a head-to-head? Decide for yourself as we pit these two beautiful board game artefacts against one another in a face-off.
King Tut’s Senet Board
Senet was more than just a game to the ancient Egyptians it was a matter of life and death. Great believers in determinism, the Egyptians came to regard senet boards as talismans for the journey of the dead, because of the element of luck involved in playing the game, which revolved around the throwing of knucklebones or casting sticks.
Successful players were believed to be protected by powerful gods such as Ra, Thoth and Osiris, and the game is even mentioned in the Book of the Dead. Their senet boards were often placed in their graves when they died, among various other handy tools for usage on the treacherous road to the afterlife.
Tutankhamun was buried with four different senet boards evidently he enjoyed playing the game a great deal. Some of them were for ceremonial purposes, others were for day-to-day usage. The ivory board dating from 1333 BC and found by Howard Carter, among the many other spectacular treasures of Tuts tomb, in 1922 was the most beautiful of the lot.
Small and portable, with various highly personal design flourishes, it may have been the very set that King Tut used to sit down with of a warm summers evening to play against his queen Ankhesenamun. On one end, it bears a roughly-carved image of a seated Tutankhamun, with Ankhesenamun standing facing him, holding a lotus flower.
Designed as a box, the board contains a small drawer in which the senet pieces two ivory knuckle-bones, five red ivory reels and five white ivory pawns were kept. The drawer was originally fastened by bolts, but these are sadly missing. Carter speculated that the bolts were probably made out of silver and gold, and were possibly stolen by grave robbers.
Various inscriptions filled with yellow pigment are etched into the sides of the box, all of them immodestly proclaiming Tuts greatness. One reads: The Strong Bull, beautiful of birth, image of Ra, precious offspring of Atum, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, ruler of the nine bows, lord of all the lands, and possessor of might Nebkheperura.
Around the drawer, Tut is described as The good god, lord of the Two Lands, lord of crowns whom Ra created and Beloved of all the gods, may he be healthy, living forever. No wonder he liked it so much!
The whole thing is mounted on an ebony stand in the form of a bed frame, with feline paws resting on gilded drums. The drums themselves were attached to an ebony sledge. Senet was played on a board of 30 squares; on the reverse side of the box is a second board, of 20 squares, which was used for playing a different game called tjau, which would appear to translate as robbers.
Nobody can be sure exactly how either senet or tjau was played, although some historians have made educated guesses, and sets are manufactured, sold and played-upon today. Theyre but a mere shadow of Tutankhamuns favourite senet board, however, which can be viewed in all its splendour at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
- The finest existing set of the oldest board game in history.
- Once a prized and frequently used possession of a world-famous Egyptian royal.
- Theres a tjau board on the reverse. Two games in one bonus!
- No one can be sure how to play Senet.
- Some parts may have been stolen by tomb robbers.
Its worth noting first of all that the Lewis Chessmen might be misleadingly-titled. According to recent research by a trio of Scottish heritage experts, the pieces may actually have been used to play Hnefatafl a medieval Scandinavian warfare game not dissimilar to chess, but contested on a bigger board with more pieces.
Whatever they were used for, it makes no difference as to the artefacts quality, which is indisputable. Individually scratched and chiseled out of walrus tusks and whales teeth by highly-skilled artisans in Trondheim, the capital of Norway until 1217, the Lewis Chessmen eight kings, eight queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks and 19 pawns are totally distinctive. Their weirdly contorted, wide-eyed and melancholic faces are humorous and enchanting. Their enigmatic origins and complex and controversial history gives them an air of mystery and drama.
Many stories exist as to how and why the chessmen were deposited on Lewis, where they were found hidden inside a sandbank at the head of the Bay of Uig by crofter Malcolm Sprot Macleod, from nearby Pennydonald, in 1831.
One fanciful local myth has it that they were stolen from an unknown ship sheltering in the bay by an escaping cabin boy, who swam ashore, before being murdered by an onlooker and concealed in the bluff. More likely they were either lost or abandoned on the island by a passing Norse merchant, or were the prize possession of a wealthy local king, lord or bishop.
After their discovery, the Lewis Chessmens story immediately becomes a complex and slightly confusing one. Following their purchase by a disreputable antiquities dealer called TA Forrest, 82 of the pieces were sold to the British Museum in London, while another 10 were secretly kept in reserve.
These 10 chessmen changed hands a number of times with another single piece, a bishop, mysteriously added to the set at some stage before all 11 were eventually sold to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who finally donated them to the Royal Museum of Scotland (part of the modern National Museum of Scotland). The chessmen today remain divided into two separate collections, owned by two different museums, in London and Edinburgh.
Calls have been made in recent years for the British Museum to return their quota of the Lewis Chessmen to Scotland, to allow the full set to be reunited on Lewis. The British Museum have resisted the Chessmen after all represent one of their most popular and precious exhibits. But they have conceded to a temporary loan of a handful of pieces, for a tour of Scotland through 2010 and 2011, alongside the National Museum of Scotlands 11 chessmen, which will visit Lewis among other destinations.
Not all of the Lewis Chessmen may have yet been discovered. There have been calls for new excavations on the island, to see if as many as 35 missing pieces may still be hidden there somewhere.
- Perhaps the only surviving medieval sets of one of the worlds most popular and enduring board games.
- Beautiful and enchanting craftsmanship.
- An intriguingly mysterious story full of myth and controversy.
- You need to visit two different museums, in two different countries, to view all of the chessmen.
- They may not actually be chessmen.
- Some pieces are missing.
Which game wins? Let us know your favourite below, and email us directly to organise a face-off including your favourite artefact.