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Gaming Tokens

Oldest Gaming Tokens Found in Turkey

Archaeologists have found a set of gaming tokens in a grave at Başur Höyük in southeast Turkey dating back to at least 3000 BC, making them the earliest gaming pieces ever found and confirming that board games likely originated and spread from the Fertile Crescent regions and Egypt more than 5,000 years ago.

The small sculpted gaming tokens consist of 49 stones carved into different shapes and painted in green, red, blue, black and white. "Some depict pigs, dogs and pyramids, others feature round and bullet shapes. We also found dice as well as three circular tokens made of white shell and topped with a black round stone," said Haluk Sağlamtimur of Ege University in İzmir, Turkey.

The tokens were accompanied by badly preserved wooden pieces or sticks. Sağlamtimur hopes they'll provide some hints on the rules and logic behind the game. "According to distribution, shape and numbers of the stone pieces, it appears that the game is based on the number 4," he said.

They were unearthed from an early Bronze Age burial, a 820- by 492-foot mound near Siirt in southeast Turkey, which was inhabited as early as from 7,000 B.C. and was on a trade route between Mesopotamia and East Anatolia. The graves have also revealed other artefacts including a bronze spearhead, various ritual artefacts, 300 well-preserved amorphous bronze artefacts, and an abundance of painted and unpainted pottery, with several examples from the Ninivite 5 culture, which spread throughout the eastern settlements of the Al Jazira, the river plain of Mesopotamia which encompasses northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria. This indicates the local people had close connections with their surrounding cultural regions, said Sağlamtimur. Radio carbon dating traced the grave goods back to 3100-2900 B.C.

"The gaming pieces, thousands of beads, hundreds of complete pots and metal artifacts indicate those graves were not ordinary burials but most probably belonged to individuals of a ruling class," Sağlamtimur said.

Archaeological records indicate that board games were widely played in Mesopotamia. Several beautifully crafted boards were found by British archaeologist Leonard Wooley in the Royal cemetery of Ur, the ancient Sumerian city near the modern Iraqi city of Nasiriya which many consider the cradle of civilization. Dating to 2550-2400 B.C., the boards were associated with the "Game of Twenty Squares," a board game played around 3000 B.C. Beautiful tokens used in the game were found arranged in a row, with the colors alternating, in another Ur tomb. The set consisted of seven shell pieces inlaid with of five lapis lazuli dots and seven pieces of black shale inlaid with five dots of white shell.

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. The game is also depicted in paintings in a number of ancient tombs.  Because of the element of luck in the game and the Egyptian belief in determinism, it was believed that a successful player was under the protection of the major gods of the national pantheon: Ra, Thoth, and sometimes Osiris. Consequently, Senet boards were often placed in the grave alongside other useful objects for the dangerous journey through the afterlife.

By April Holloway

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