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Meroitic Graves with Roman Games: Elites Moving the Borders of Play

Pages 23 - 33


In 1963 two sets of gaming materials were excavated from a Meroitic necropolis in Sedeinga, Sudan. Comparative analysis of the unpublished archaeological descriptions shows that these are likely examples of the Roman game of Duodecim Scripta. Carbon dating and epigraphic evidence dates these games to the first centuries ce while wood analysis shows the use of African blackwood or Dalbergia melanoxylon as the main material for the game board and pieces. The presence of Roman games in elite Meroitic graves points to an introduction of this game into the Meroitic world. In the history of Roman games this find is a rare example of Duodecim Scripta in which wooden board and playing pieces together with cubic dice are found preserved in a grave context.

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1 We wish to thank Bertie-Joan van Heuven (Naturalis Leiden) for sectioning and photographing the recalcitrant wood fragment. We also wish to thank Edda Bresciani and Flora Silvano for accessing the archival materials at the University Museum in Pisa. We are particularly grateful to Jennifer Steffey for her artwork and to Irving Finkel and Michael Dee for their valuable advice in the preparation of this article.

2 E. g., J. Leclant: “Fouilles et travaux en Égypte et au Soudan, 1964–1965.” In: Orientalia 35 (1966), pp. 161–165; J. Leclant: “Les verreries de la nécropole méroïtique de l'Ouest à Sedeinga (Nubie soudanaise).” In: K. Michalowski (ed.): Nubia, récentes recherches. Varsovie 1975, pp. 85–95.

3 C. Rilly / V. Francigny: “Excavations at Sedeinga. A new start.” In: Sudan & Nubia 14 (2010), pp. 62–68.

4 F. Cailliaud: Voyage à Méroé et au Fleuve Blanc au delà du Fâzoql et dans le midi du royaume de Sennar, à Syouah et dans cinq autres oasis, fait dans les années 1819, 1820, 1821 et 1822. Paris 1826, p. 369.

5 For a discussion of reused Meroitic graves, see A. J. de Voogt / V. Francigny: “Opening a grave in antiquity: Formation and interpretation in the Kingdom of Meroe.” In: Journal of African Archaeology 10, 1 (2012), pp. 59–70.

6 E. g. M. Schiff Giorgini: “Première campagne de fouilles à Sedeinga, 1963–1964.” In: Kush 13 (1965), pp. 112–130; M. Schiff Giorgini: “Sedeinga 1964–1965.” In: Kush 14 (1966), pp. 244–261; J. Leclant 1966; J. Leclant: “Fouilles et travaux en Égypte et au Soudan, 1969–1970.” In: Orientalia 40 (1971), pp. 252–255, Fig. 49–64.

7 Only 24 are mentioned in Leclant 1966, p. 163 and in Schiff Giorgini 1966, p. 251.

8 M.-D. Nenna: “Le gobelet peint de Sedeinga.” In M. Baud (ed.): Méroé. Un empire sur le Nil. Paris 2012, p. 128.

9 Laboratory code: OxA-30026. See C. Bronk Ramsey: “Radiocarbon calibration and analysis of stratigraphy: The OxCal program.” In: Radiocarbon 37,2 (1995), pp. 425–430; C. Bronk Ramsey / S. Lee: “Recent and Planned Developments of the Program OxCal.” Radiocarbon 55, 2–3 (2013), pp. 720–730; P. J. Reimer et al.: “IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP.” In: Radiocarbon 55,4 (2013), pp. 1869–1887.

10 IAWA Committee: “IAWA List of Microscopic features for Hardwood Identification.” In: IAWA Bulletin n. s. 10 (1989), pp. 219–332; InsideWood: 2004-onwards; E. A. Wheeler: “InsideWood—a web resource for hardwood anatomy.” In: IAWA Journal 32 (2011), pp. 199–212.

11 D. Louppe / A. A. Oteng-Amoaka / M. Brink: Plant Resources of Tropical Africa 7(1). Timbers 1. Wageningen 2008, p. 203.

12 Lemmens in Louppe et al. 2008, pp. 202–203.

13 Louppe et al. 2008, p. 203.

14 For an overview see W. Crist / A.-E. Dunn-Vaturi / A. J. de Voogt: Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board games across borders. London 2016.

15 Chess was introduced in Egypt around the seventh century ce and checkers was introduced to Africa after the fifteenth century ce and probably as late as the nineteenth century, see A. J. de Voogt: A question of excellence: a century of African masters. Trenton 2005.

16 E.g., H. Lamer: “Lusoria tabula.” In: A. F. Pauly /G. Wissowa (eds.): Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Stuttgart 1927 (XIII,26), pp. 1900–2029; R. G. Austin: “Roman board games.” I. In: Greece & Rome 4,10 (1934,) pp. 24–34; R. C. Bell / C. M. Roueché: “Graeco-Roman pavement signs and game boards: a British Museum working typology.” In: I. L. Finkel (ed.): Ancient board games in perspective. London 2007, pp. 106–109; U. Schädler: “XII Scripta, Alea, Tabula: new evidence for the Roman history of ‘backgammon’.” In A. J. de Voogt (ed.): New Approaches to Board Games Research: Asian origins and future perspective. Leiden 1995, pp. 73–98; N. Purcell: “Inscribing imperial Roman gaming-boards.” In I. L. Finkel (ed.): Ancient board games in perspective. London 2007, pp. 98–99.

17 H. J. R. Murray: A history of board games other than chess. Oxford 1952, p. 30.

18 Schädler 1995.

19 A. Rieche: Römische Kinder- und Gesellschaftsspiele. Stuttgart 1984, pp. 18, 23.

20 T. Krüger: Das Brett- und Würfelspiel der Spätlatènezeit und römischen Kaiserzeit im freien Germanien. Hildesheim 1982 (Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Niedersachsen 15).

21 Schädler 1995; Rieche 1984, p. 19.

22 W. B. Emery / L. P. Kirwan: Mission Archéologique de Nubie 1929–1934. The Royal Tombs of Ballana and Qustul. Vols. I and II. Cairo 1938, p. 345.

23 Rieche 1984, pp. 20, 61, 73.

24 Schädler 1995.

25 See also: A. J. de Voogt / J. W. Eerkens/R. Sherman-Presser: “Production bias in cultural evolution: An examination of cubic dice variation in experimental and archaeological contexts.” In: Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 40 (2015), pp. 151–159.

26 Schädler 1995.

27 Krüger 1982, p. 163.

28 Ars Armatoria II 198–208, see A. Rieche: “Römische Spiele in Schrift- und Sachquelle.” In: Der Altsprachliche Unterricht 29,3 (1986), pp. 40–55.

29 A. J. de Voogt / A.-E. Dunn-Vaturi / J. W. Eerkens: “Cultural transmission in the Ancient Near East: Twenty squares and fifty-eight holes.” In: Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013), pp. 1715–1730.


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