Stone balls on Greek sites: an ancestor of the board game

But what could these nearly perfect stone spheres, which are found in large numbers in various ancient sites of the Aegean and the Mediterranean, be of any use? During the 20th century, archaeologists discovered them in Crete, Cyprus, Santorini and other Greek islands, both inside buildings and in open spaces. Smaller than golf balls, these odd balls made from different minerals have been the subject of many theories about how they could have been used in the Bronze Age, some researchers sometimes refer to as stone throwing golf balls, slingshot stones, pieces of a counting system or even as game pieces.

746 spheres in Akrotiri alone

Thanks to the work that combines classical statistical analysis and machine learning, a team from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, claims to have finally put an end to the suspense: these spheres would in fact be the pieces of one of the oldest board games of humanity , together with mah (also known as Snake Game), senet or the Game of Dogs and Jackals, all Egyptian, or the Royal Game of Ur (or Game of Twenty Squares), found in a royal tomb in the Mesopotamian city.

Several dozen stones found in Akrotiri. Credits: Christianne Fernée / University of Bristol

The researchers relied on the largest set of stone spheres assembled to date, found in the only town of Akrotiri Thera on the Greek island of Santorini. Christianne Fernée and Konstantinos Trimmis, both belonging to the anthropology and archeology department of the British university, thus examined the characteristics of 746 stones, of size, materials and therefore of different colors.

Only two sizes

“We used artificial intelligence to identify clusters in collections of spheres based on their size, meaning diameter and weight. This allowed them to be separated into two groups: a large group of small spheres and a small group of large spheres. “.explains to Science and the future Christianne Fernee. Combined with traditional analysis, AI has suggested that the stones may have been deliberately selected or processed to match the two general size groups. “Some appear to be sculpted in such a way that they become spherical and enter certain dimensions”, says the researcher. While the smaller ones were found anywhere on the site, the larger balls were discovered deposited in man-made cavities under the buildings of the last phase of occupation.

    Credit: University of Bristol

A slab with carvings for the spheres, also called kernos, found in the square of the Casa delle Panchine in Akrotiri, on the island of Santorini. The way the balls are placed is an interpretation. Credits: Christianne Fernée / University of Bristol

The AI ​​also supported the theory that the spheres really served as game pieces, “because if they were used as part of a weighing or counting system – which has so far been among the advanced theories still under discussion – one would have expected them to be grouped into several other groups”, continues Christianne Fernée. For his part, Konstantinos Trimmis believes it “The social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, reinforces the idea that they were part of a game that was being played for social interaction. This offers a new insight into social interaction in ‘Aegean Bronze Age region “.

Whoever says checkers says boards

The small spherical stone objects may therefore have been played on stone slabs with cut marks and other depressions, newly discovered throughout the eastern Mediterranean. “These types of plates have been found in Crete, the Levant, Cyprus, the island of Naxos and even Santorini”writes the duo. “The recording of the plates, also known as kernoi in Akrotiri, showed that the function of the object was more important than its materiality.” Archaeologists, in fact, have not been able to find a pattern either in the type of stone used, nor in their color, nor in their general shape. “It appears that a relatively flat slab that can be drilled or engraved with domes did the trick.”assumes Christianne Fernée. “The size of the domes is not the same from one plate to another, and the only real feature is the presence of a large sign and a few smaller ones – probably 21 in total – arranged in a spiral or oval.”

    Credit: University of Bristol

Several slabs found throughout the ancient world of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Credits: Christianne Fernée / University of Bristol.

The reason why such a quantity of spheres were discovered in Akrotiri and nowhere else is however not clear. One of the hypotheses advanced is that it could be cultural: only the inhabitants of Akrotiri would have used the lithic spheres to play when, in other places, the pawns would have been made of seeds, legumes or manure balls, organic remains not resistant to the ravages of time. . Another possibility suggested explaining this absence of spheres in large numbers elsewhere: that of the existence of a search bias that would have made the stones go unnoticed during the excavation process.

The next phase of the research will consist in applying a similar methodology to the plates, in particular to try to associate them with the spheres. The team also hopes to use artificial intelligence techniques to determine how the game was actually played. Because there is still the real mystery: what were the rules?

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