AMME Seminar 16.12.21: 'Board Games of the Ancient World'

The final Ancient and Medieval Middle East (AMME) seminar of this semester will be a hybrid event, organised on Thursday 16 December, 16:15-18:00 EET.
The session will consist of the following two papers and a shared discussion on the theme of ‘board games of the ancient world’.

Dr. Walter Crist 

The Playable Past: Digital Tools and the Board Games of Antiquity

Traditional board games are one of the oldest and most obvious leisure practices that leave an impression on the archaeological record. Because human play so frequently does not contain a material element, board games, which require objects for play, are often one of the only kinds of play accessible to archaeologists. Nevertheless, most of the games of antiquity have not survived to the present day with intact rules. This is because people learned and taught games through interpersonal interaction, rather than from reading a written ruleset. Therefore, knowledge about games must be obtained from other sources. 

The Digital Ludeme Project is documenting the knowledge of traditional games from around the world, with the goal of documenting what is known about games from the past 5000 years, and using computational techniques, identify playable rulesets for the games which have not survived. Using artifacts, texts, art, and ethnography, the knowledge is placed in its geographic and chronological context, and holes in the rulesets are identified. Candidate rules that could fill in these holes are then identified, based on rules found in other games which are similar or connected chronologically or geographically, and Artificial Intelligence agents play the games and calculate behavioral metrics based on how they play. This paper will discuss this approach with respect to the games of ancient southwest Asia. 

Dr. Jacob Schmidt-Madsen

From Victory to Defeat: A Brief History of Backgammon in Medieval South Asia 

Despite its likely origins in ancient Rome and its return to Europe at the time of the Crusades, the game of backgammon remains firmly associated with the Middle East. It is there we find the story of its invention at the Sasanian court of Khusrau I (r. 531-79) and its subsequent introduction into India. Despite the legendary nature of the story and the sparsity of references to the game in Sanskrit literature, backgammon not only took root in India, but went on to become a favorite among kings and gods alike. It retained its position for the better part of a millennium, and when it finally began to fade sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries, it was only because a new game arrived on the scene and took hold of the popular imagination. Around the turn of the 16th century, the cruciform game of chaupar, later introduced in the West as Parcheesi (US, 1867) and Ludo (UK, 1886), was all the rage at the Hindu courts. Soon the heroes of old and the gods in heaven were playing it, too. And when the Persianate Mughals established their empire in India in 1526, even they abandoned backgammon for the new and fashionable chaupar. 

This talk will survey available evidence for the presence of backgammon in India from the early sculptures of Śiva and Pārvatī playing dice to the description of pāśakakrīḍā, or the game of stick dice, in a 12th-century book of royal pastimes. The talk will discuss possible reasons for the decline of backgammon and the rise of chaupar, and suggest ways in which the former may have influenced the design and interpretation of the latter. 


You are most welcome to join us in person (Faculty hall, Fabianinkatu 24, 5th floor) or online (Zoom link / Meeting ID: 678 8979 2118), Thursday 16  December 2021 at 16:15-18:00 EET (i.e. UTC +02:00).

Hope to see you there!