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Pattern of holes carved into ancient shelter in Azerbaijan are the remains of one of the world’s oldest games.

Holes Found Carved in Ancient Rock Shelter in Azerbaijan Belong to One of World’s Oldest Games

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A major discovery has just been made in Gobustan, Azerbaijan - a rock carving of a game board that is believed to be one of the oldest that has ever been found. Dating back around 4000 years, the game is an early form of ‘Hounds and Jackals’, which was popular among the ancient Egyptians. The region in which it was found was once populated by ancient cattle herding people, revealing one of the ways in which nomadic hunters entertained themselves millennia ago.

Ancient Entertainment

According to Live Science , the discovery was made by Dr William Crist, an American scholar who works at the American Museum of Natural History. He was browsing through a series of photographs in a magazine with pictographs from Gobustan and had a Eureka moment when he instantly recognized that one of the images was of a board game . He was so excited that he caught a plane the next day and flew straight to the Azeri capital, Baku.

The American expert had identified the pictograph as an example of a board game that was known as ‘Hounds and Jackals’ (also called 58 Holes). This game had two central rows surrounded by 50 holes. It is believed that the aim of the game was to start at one point on the board and reach with all figures to another point on the board.

The game received its name from the fact the board’s counters were made to represent hounds and jackals, these were discovered in the tomb of a pharaoh of the 13 th Dynasty in Egypt. Cist explained that the game "suddenly appears everywhere at the same time" [via the Daily Mail ]. It is thought to have been played very much like the modern-game of Backgammon.

Antique backgammon board

Antique backgammon board ( 445017 / Adobe Stock )

It should not come as a surprise that an ancient game has been found. There is evidence that our ancestors played various game across the ancient world. They have been unearthed in many burial sites, particularly in graves belonging to members of the elite. 

The Rock Carvings at Gobustan

The board was found in the Gobustan National Park which is not far from the Azeri capital of Baku. There are many important Bronze Age archaeological sites in this park and there are some 4500 pictographs to have been found here. They represent various aspects of life from the Bronze Age, including boats, battles, ceremonies and hunts. It is believed that they were created by a nomadic pastoralist society about 4000 years ago.

The game board was found in a rock shelter in Gobustan National Park

The game board was found in a rock shelter in Gobustan National Park, pictured ( Andrey Shevchenko / Adobe Stock) .

The archaeological evidence that shows that the board game ‘hounds and jackals’ was played over 4000 years ago is important.  The dating was possible despite the fact that the board is carved on rock because there is material evidence linking the area’s carvings to a pastoralist society that can be dated to over four millennia ago.  This would make the find in Azerbaijan the oldest in the world and even older than the game of Hounds and Jackal’s that was found in the tomb of a Pharaoh.  However, according to Sputnik News, it is not the oldest board game ‘The Royal Game of Ur is slightly older’. This was uncovered in a site in modern Iraq.

The game of Hounds and Jackals

The game of Hounds and Jackals ( CC by SA 1.0 )

More Than Just a Game

Crist’s identification of the carving in Gobustan as a board game is very important. The fact that such a game was played over a wide region from the Caucasus to the Nile would indicate that there was a great deal of cultural exchange in the area over millennia. The rock carving also reveals a level of sophisticated social organization, logical thinking, and advanced language skills.

Top image: Pattern of holes carved into ancient shelter in Azerbaijan are the remains of one of the world’s oldest games. Credit: Walter Crist/Gobustan National Park

By Ed Whelan

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