Royal Game of Ur

Two gameboards from the Royal Tombs of Ur, a Sumerian city-state in what is now Iraq, date back to 2600–2400 BC.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 13 November 2017

Archaeology is the study of human activity in the past based on material remains. As a discipline, it’s relatively young, yet many of the key characteristics of modern archaeology were already established before the end of the nineteenth century.

Back in those early days, archaeologists were relatively few and far between. As a result, these pioneers have left indelible marks on the history of the discipline: Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) for ancient Egypt, Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890) for Mycenaean Greece and his excavations at Troy, Arthur Evans (1851–1941) for his discovery of the Minoan civilization on Crete, Max Uhle (1856–1944) for his work in Peru, and so on. For better or for worse, we owe the popular conception of archaeologists as adventurers that sought out ancient civilizations and precious relics largely to these men.

Another archaeological pioneer was Leonard Woolley (1880-1960). Despite a lack of any formal training in archaeology, he was appointed to lead excavations at Corbridge (near Hadrian’s Wall). Later, he conducted excavayions at the Hittite city of Carchemish (on the frontier of today’s Turkey and Syria) with none other than T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) as his assistant. It has been said that Woolley and Lawrence were at the time working for the British Naval Intelligence as spies against the Germans.

Excavations at Ur

After the First World War, Woolley went to Iraq to conduct excavations at the city of Ur, the birth place of the biblical Abraham. His discoveries there highlighted how important and ancient the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia was. Woolley’s work was to have a lasting impact on the archaeology of the ancient Near East. Among his perhaps more controversial suggestions was his proposal that a particular layer of sediment at the site could be evidence for the massive flood described in the Book of Genesis.

In any event, the city of Ur was thought to have been the burial site where Sumerian royalty had been interred. Among the many precious items recovered from the site were two gameboards that date to the First Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2600–2400 BC). The so-called Royal Game of Ur is among the oldest known boardgames and similar to the older Egyptian game of Senet.

The gameboard is divided into twenty squares, grouped into three different areas: four by three squares connected by a narrow piece one square wide and two squares long to an area consisting of six squares total. (Later versions of the game removed the final area and simply stuck the six squares to the end of the narrow bit, making it eight squares long in total.) Squares have different patterns that may have had some effect on gameplay.

The game was intended for two players, as shown by the two sets of playing pieces (one black, the other white). It also came with some terahydral dice. Like Senet and backgammon (which itself has antecedents going back to at least the Roman era), the Royal Game of Ur was a race game. In a race game, you win the game by being the first to get all of your pieces to the end of the track. The dice must have been used to determine the movement range of the pieces, just like in Senet or backgammon.

The precise rules for the game are the subject of some debate. A tablet written by a Bablyonian astronomer of the second century BC gives some of the advanced rules, but is frustratingly incomplete because the author assumed most readers would be familiar with how to play the simple version. As a result, there’s usually some difference among the rules released by publishers of modern versions of the Royal Game of Ur. The British Museum have put up a fun video of Tom Scott playing against curator Irving Finkel, who has strong ideas about how the game must have been played.

Why games?

If you’re not into games, you might be wondering why people seemingly waste their time to study them.

Leslie Kurke once wrote an interesting article called “Ancient Greek board games and how to play them”, published in Classical Philology (1999), pp. 247–267. Contrary to what the title might lead you to believe, the article doesn’t actually deal with how to play ancient board games, but rather with what board games reveal about “the conceptual world within which board games might have been important” (p. 247). Kurke’s subject deals with ancient Greece, but the ideas behind the article can be transposed to virtually any other culture or period.

So, with that in mind, what do you think a two-player racing game reveals about the ancient Sumerians? And since such games are still popular today, what do you think is the significance of that? And if you don’t care about games, what do you think that says about yourself? Of course, there are no right or wrong answers here: just some food for thought.