Mind Games of the Forgotten Russian Knight
Russian archaeologists exploring deep within a hidden chamber in the crypt of a late 13th century castle made the highly-unusual discovery of a large sandstone inscribed with a series of curious interlocking squares. Bearing all the hallmarks of a secret encoded message, the symbol turned out to be a board game dating back to the medieval period according to a recent report in The Moscow Times.
Vyborg Castle is a Swedish-built fortress dating back to 1293 AD but historians believe an even earlier Karelian (historical province of Finland) fortress might once have stood on the site. Located near the town of Vyborg (today in Russia) it was one of Finland’s three major castles built strategically as the easternmost outpost of the medieval Kingdom of Sweden.
13th century Vyborg Castle, Russia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Discovery of the Russian board game
According to a News Week article featuring the rare discovery, archaeologists discovered the large carved stone “during excavation works in a hidden chamber.” They also unearthed other curious items including “a purse with dozens of early 19th-century copper coins,” but Vladimir Tsoi, the head of the Vyborg museum-reserve told his social media group on Wednesday, speaking of the carved stone, “This is perhaps the most intriguing.”
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Excavation of a hidden chamber revealed the crypt. (Image: VK / Otto-Iivari Meurman)
Tsoi posted a series of photos showing a fired clay brick with tracings of what looks like “a Nine Men’s Morris game.” Nine Men’s Morris is similar to checkers in that two or more players move pieces across a grid aiming of reduce the opponent’s pieces, to actualize a win. This particular game was exceptionally popular in medieval England and boards have been found carved at many English cathedrals including at Canterbury, Salisbury and Westminster Abbey.
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Two views of the Nine Men’s Morris Game. Image: Vyborg Museum Press Office
Development of Nine Men’s Morris
Nine Men’s Morris, or versions of it, originated in different continents independently at different times. It was practiced in India in the 9th–10th centuries evident in the discovery of a board inscribed in stone in the Bhoga Nandeeswara temple in Karnataka, as described in this Economic Times article. It was also played in the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago and archaeologists have found many boards inscribed at temples.
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Men playing Nine Men's Morris with dice, pictured in Grunfeld, Frederic V. (1975) Games of the World. (Public Domain)
While most experts agree that the oldest versions of the game were Roman, a clay tile fragment from the archaeological museum at Mycenae shows what appears to be a Nine Men's Morris board. According to a 2017 Yorkton This Week article, scholar R. C. Bell, (author of several books on board games, most importantly Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations) another was “cut into the roofing slabs of the temple at Kurna in Egypt” sometime around 1400 BC. However, Egyptologist Friedrich Berger who wrote A History of Ancient Egypt II pointed out that the temple at Kurna had also been carved with Coptic crosses, making it "doubtful" that the Nine Men’s Morris boards were executed as early as 1400 BC.
World’s oldest game claims
While archaeologists were arguing over which nation holds the prestigious title of having yielded the “oldest game in the world,” five years ago Turkish officials delivered a devastating upper-cut and grabbed the title belt, undisputedly. Reported by Discovery News in August 2013, Haluk Sağlamtimur, a researcher with Ege University was part of the team in southeast Turkey who unearthed “an old board and 49 intricately carved tokens depicting pigs, dogs, and pyramids, others feature round and bullet shapes.” The archaeologists also found “dice and circular tokens among the pieces, which were painted in colors” all of which dated to an incredible 5,000 years old.
Gaming tokens found in Başur Höyük, Turkey. (Image: Haluk Saglamtimur)
What all these early board games have in common is that they were generally the reserve of the educated classes in history. And by educated, I do not only refer to the ‘elites’ who had been educated in the seven liberal arts. Archaeologists believe the boards discovered in Roman temples were used by architects, measuring specialists and stonemasons, who had developed spatial awareness and had a grasp of square mathematics, which is all Nine Men’s Morris really is an exercise in.
The board discovered carved on the stone in the crypt of Vyborg Castle has not yet been associated with any of the castle’s past inhabitants, and all that is known at this time is that someone in the last 800 years had dedicated some time off the sword towards pursuits of the mind.
Top image: The Russian board game found in a crypt in Vyborg Castle Source: Vyborg Museum Press Release
By Ashley Cowie
Bell, R. C. (1979). Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations. Vol. 1. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 90–92