The Indiana Jonesian discovery of the Royal Game of Ur

Royal Game of Ur is one of the oldest board games known to man—only senet, an Egyptian game, has been dated further back. The Royal Game of Ur, however, is generally known as the oldest game with a fully surviving set of rules. There’s still plenty of speculation as to how, exactly, players played the game, but for the most part, we know how it worked.

Which is, when you think about it, extremely impressive. The game is over 4,000 years old, and people basically stopped playing it around 2,000 years ago. The fact that we have even a vague idea of what to do with some fancy boards found in a Mesopotamian tomb is pretty astonishing.

Even more astonishing, perhaps, is how we know how to play the game.

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The original discovery of the game happened in the early 1920s, when a British archaeologist found a number of boards (I’ve seen sources that say two, four, and five) while excavating tombs around the ancient city of Ur. Indiana Jones likeness #1: excavation of ancient tombs.

(You can see some of the fascinating finds from the tombs of Ur in this video from the St. Louis Art Museum; there are some really great photos of the dig site in the video, too.)

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The boards are beautiful, and certainly befitting of the royals that they accompanied to the afterlife; one of them was outfitted in red limestone, shell, and lapis lazuli, a rare and valuable stone that had to be imported from afar (you can see this board below). It was clear that these boards were important artifacts, and that they had cultural significance.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear from just looking at the boards themselves how to play the game, so it remained a mystery.

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Image courtesy of the British Museum.

It would be another sixty years before anyone knew how to play. Irving Finkel, a noted game enthusiast and Assyriologist, was hired by the British Museum in 1979 as an expert on cuneiform inscriptions. This position allowed him access to the museum’s huge stores of undisplayed items, including around 130,000 cuneiform tablets. In the early 1980s, he found a rather interesting tablet that depicted a board of 20 spaces and had a mix of Sumerian and Babylonian words inscribed in it. Indiana Jones likeness #2: ancient languages inscribed on a tablet.

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Finkel realized that the tablet, which had been written around 177 B.C., was about the Royal Game of Ur, and eventually used it to decode the rules of the game. It also revealed that sheep and ox knucklebones were used as primitive dice, that squares in the center row may have had some astrological significance, and specific rolls were required to get one’s pieces onto the board.

At the time, it was considered a historical discovery, as the game was long dead. It was estimated to have died out about 2,000 years after it had started—still a very impressive achievement (do you think people will still be playing Blood Rage and Twilight Struggle in 2,000 years?). But the discoveries weren’t done yet.

Being a museum employee, Finkel regularly saw a number of academic journals related to museums and archaeology, and one of them held a very surprising photo: a wooden board with 20 squares. It belonged to a Jewish family in Cochin, India, where many Jews had emigrated from Babylon. Indiana Jones likeness #3: academic discovery.

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Because Finkel’s sister still lived in Jerusalem, he asked her to help him out. Many Jews who had formerly lived in Cochin had resettled in a nearby kibbutz, and Finkel’s sister went door to door through the kibbutz with a drawing of the game, asking if anyone recognized the board or knew anything about it. In what seems like a nearly impossible coincidence, she actually found someone.

Finkel jumped on a plane to Israel. Indiana Jones likeness #4: flights around the world to investigate mysteries.

When he arrived, he met with Ruby Daniel, a retired schoolteacher who remembered playing the game with other girls and women when she was young. Although there were a few minor differences between the ancient game of Ur and the modern game played by the Cochin Jews, it was definitely the same game. Indiana Jones likeness #5: ancient artifacts in the modern age.

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Over 4,000 years after it was introduced, the game was still being played.

While it isn’t played much anymore, the Royal Game of Ur is still around. You can even buy a copy of it on Amazon if you want to give it a try. But the legacy of the game lives on in a number of modern family games; its race mechanics are echoed in games like Sorry!Robo Rally, and Candy Land (which has its own fascinating history).

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