SANDS OF TIME: The Royal Game of Ur

tumblr_mp5v3qAKT51rwjpnyo1_1280Here`s a question for you; what`s the oldest board game that you know of?  Risk (1957)?  Scrabble (1938)?  Monopoly (1930)?  It may surprise you to learn of the dates that those games were created, but there are much older examples that have survived to this day.  Awhile ago, while researching seemingly useless information on a rainy night, I came across a game on the internet so old that it predated modern writing systems, it`s rules being etched in cuneiform shapes onto stone.  It`s called the Royal Game of Ur and at over 4,500 years old, it is the oldest complete board game in the world.

Leonard Woolley, at right, and Sir T.E. Lawrence, at left, excavating on the Ur site.

Leonard Woolley, at right, and Sir T.E. Lawrence, at left, excavating on the Ur site.

Ur was a major Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, which is roughly modern day Iraq.  If the city sounds familiar to any Sunday school teachers that would be because it is also the hometown of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, as revealed in Genesis 11:27-31.  He, his father Terah and extended family lived there before setting out for Canaan.  The city that they left behind though is said to have been one of splendour due to it’s importance as the major port in the area.  Many millenia later, while excavating the city`s royal tombs in the 1920`s, Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist and collegue of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), unearthed a testament to Ur’s advanced culture, the game itself and a partially readable rules tablet.


Royal Game of Ur rules tablet, scribed from 177-176 B.C. British Museum, London.

So how do you play it?  Well it’s because of the state of the tablet, created by Babylonian scribe Itti-Marduk-Balāṭu between 177-176 B.C., that research is still ongoing. The game consisted of two sets of seven markers; one set being black the other white.  The player used tetrahedral dice. The patterns on the gameboard at first were thought to be merely decoration but  their unique fashioning from cube to cube called for further investigation.  Although there is confusion amidst the ever deepening theories regarding the specifics, scientists do agree on some elements of gameplay and believe that the Royal Game of Ur may be a predecessor to backgammon. 

It’s amazing to imagine that thousands of years ago people were enjoying board games just as we do now, but researchers are finding out more and more that an ancient world does not always mean a primitive world.  There’s more on the Royal Game of Ur and related topics to check out on the web or if you have the cash and time to spend, head over to the British Museum in London to see the original artifact.  Maybe I’ll see you there!


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