Mysterious board game found in ancient Chinese tomb, along with suspected dead looter
Looters seem to have rolled the dice and lost when they plundered the tomb of an ancient aristocrat in Qingzhou City, China. When archaeologists uncovered the 2,300-year-old tomb, they found pieces of a mysterious board game, as well as the body of a suspected thief.
Excavations of the tomb and the five burial pits within revealed grave goods, including a 14-sided die, 21 game pieces, and broken bits of a game board, reports LiveScience.
There was evidence the tomb had been extensively looted. Indeed, archaeologists encountered the remains of what may have been one of the grave robbers lying in one of the 26 shafts made by the thieves.
Ancient Chance: The Lost Game of Liubo
The recovered 14-sided die is made of animal tooth. LiveScience writes, “Twelve faces of the die are numbered 1 through 6 in a form of ancient Chinese writing known as ‘seal script.’ Each number appears twice on the die while two faces were left blank.”
An example of seal script on an iron, Qin Dynasty epigraph. (Public Domain)
The 21 rectangular game pieces have numbers painted on them as well. The broken tile from the game board was pieced together by experts. It had been decorated with two eyes surrounded by clouds and thunder.
It’s believed the various artifacts belong to the lost game of “Liubo”, an enigmatic board game that hasn’t been played for some 1,500 years.
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A pair of Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE) ceramic tomb figurines of two gentlemen playing liubo. (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes that Liubo was a popular game in ancient China, during the Han dynasty becoming the most popular board game in the imperial court and in common circles. It included many playing pieces, including dice, chess pieces, a square board, and even cutting and scraping knifes. The game fell out of favor and stopped being played about 1,500 years ago.
How exactly Liubo was played has been lost to time, but thanks to archaeological discoveries of game boards and pieces, as well as images of people playing, knowledge of the game has increased. It is believed each player moved six game pieces around the square board. A roll of sticks or dice determined the movements in the game.
Mural from an Easter Han Dynasty tomb at Luoyang, Henan showing a pair of Liubo players in the foreground, the player on the right with his right hand raised up as if about to throw down the six throwing sticks. (Public Domain)
“The historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 B.C.) tells a legend of a Shang-dynasty (1600–1100 B.C.) emperor who forced his subjects to play liubo using pieces shaped like the gods. Not daring to overcome the emperor, his opponents would let him win, and the emperor then declared he was victorious over the gods themselves,” reports MetMuseum.org.
Ancient Tomb for the Aristocracy of Qi
According to The Standard Times, it is not known who the tomb belonged to, but archaeologists believe that it may have been built for the aristocracy of "Qi," an ancient state in China which was conquered by the first emperor of China in 221 BC.
The excavated tomb, measuring approximately 330 feet (100 meters) long, has two ramps on either side leading to stairs which descend into the heavily looted burial chamber. It was long ago topped with an earthen burial mound, which is now gone.
The ancient tomb had been thoroughly looted, but one of the looters may have paid a heavy price. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics
Livescience quotes the researchers, who wrote,
“Despite the huge scale of the tomb, it has been thoroughly robbed. The coffin chamber was almost completely dug out and robbed, suffering severe damage in the process.”
Details about the suspected looter, such as age or gender, or even when he or she died have yet to be determined.
According to LiveScience, archaeologists excavated the tomb in 2004 but the findings were not reported until 2014. Details have now been published by researchers from the Qingzhou Municipal Museum and Shandong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in the English-language journal Chinese Cultural Relics.
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Dice and chance games date back 40,000 years . The world’s oldest gaming board, called Senet, was found in predynastic and First Dynasty burials in Egypt dating back to 3500 and 3100 BC respectively. Because of the element of luck in the game and the Egyptian belief in determinism, it was believed that good players were under the protection of the gods. Consequently, Senet boards were often placed in the grave alongside other useful objects for the dangerous journey through the afterlife.
A game box and pieces for playing the game of Senet found within the tomb of king Tutankhamun. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The fate of the looter in the Chinese tomb shows that ancient burial sites are not something to play around with.
Board Games Through Time
Examples of ancient board games have been found in many countries throughout the world, showing that entertainment was considered an important aspect of society in many ancient civilizations. In Iraq, game board pieces dating back 5,000 years have been found belonging to what is now called the ‘Royal Game of Ur’ played in Mesopotamia – it was a racing game based on a set of knucklebone dice. Archaeological evidence suggest that ancient Egyptians also enjoyed board games. Even Queen Nefertari, the famous wife of Ramesses II, was portrayed in her tomb while playing a board game called Senet. The second most famous game in ancient Egypt was Mehen, of which the first evidence is as old as 3,000 BC. It was very popular during the Old Kingdom, and remained prevalent at least until the Third Intermediate Period. In India, game boards relating to the modern game of Snakes and Ladders have been found dated to the 2 nd century AD, and in July 2018, archaeologists discovered a rare Viking game board in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
Featured Image: A fourteen-sided die may have been used to play the ancient game of “bo”. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics
By: Liz Leafloor