September 23, 2013

How old is Chess?

Chess is commonly believed to have originated in India as the game, Chaturanga Sanskrit meaning, "four parts", referring to divisions of the military of the Gupta Empire. In about the 6th century CE, it was adapted by the Persians who carried it west to Spain where it spread to Italy and then France. The game made its way to Wales in the 11th century, as a consequence of the Norman incursions, where it became known as Gwyddbwyll. Gwyddbwyll was also known as Fidchell in Ireland. Irish legend has it that Fidchell was actually invented by Lugh, the Irish god of light and was a game played by royalty as well as the gods.

Board games modeled on war, using carved pieces and checkered patterns like Chess, have cross-cultural ties and appear to have been part of the human experience for hundreds, or even thousands of years. In the 5th Century BCE, one of the first known board games modeled on war was the ancient Greek military-style board game, Petteia (aka Poleis, Polis, City, Cities, Pessoi, or Pebbles). The game, Petteia, as Plato and Aristotle called it, was played on boards with black and white stones lined up on opposing sides. The goal was to capture an opponent's stones by blocking them in between two others. Sound familiar?

So it could be argued that the game of Chess has its origins in ancient Greece. However, upon further examination, you will find archaeological evidence suggests board games, like Chess, can be found from the earliest stages of civilization and in all major ancient countries. This is particularly true in the Near East; the cradle of civilization. Numerous game boards with their playing pieces have been discovered in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia. While scholars still debate their significance, it is generally agreed that these games were played by people in both higher and lower social classes.

Some of the most ancient archaeological examples of strategic board games were found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. These game boards are some of the oldest examples excavated, dating from the First Dynasty of Ur, before 2600 BCE, as seen on the left. However, the trail does not stop here. Senet boards, found in Egyptian tombs, predate the game boards of Ur by almost 1000 years! The oldest hieroglyph depicting a game of Senet dates to about 3100 BCE. The image to the right is of a fresco from the tomb of Nefertari. It depicts Queen Nefertari playing Senet.

Still, new information on the origin of Chess was uncovered as recently as 2013, when a complete set of small carved stones was found in a 5,000-year-old burial mound at Başur Höyük near Siirt in southeast Turkey. The site was inhabited as early as 7,000 BCE and was on a trade route between Mesopotamia and East Anatolia. These game pieces could represent the earliest ever found. The pieces, pictured below, were sculpted in such shapes as pigs, dogs and pyramids, and are painted in green, red, blue, black and white. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out exactly how the game was played, but have determined that it is, indeed, similar to Chess.

So how old is Chess? It seems there is no way to be certain. From an archaeological perspective, its origins are still being unearthed. There does not appear to be a Scholar’s Mate on the horizon for this one. However, one thing is clear, Chess and Chess-like games have spanned many eras and cultures, undergoing numerous adaptations. The next time you sit down to a game of Chess, just think, you are taking part in a living history! For anyone who does not play Chess, you may want to consider trying it. Get back in touch with what it means to be human, as Chess has proven to be a steadfast part of our collective human experience.

Click here to read another ancient use for game pieces. One you might never have expected...