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The Gaming Tables Of King Solomon

Aug 16, 2014

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Archaeologists at a dig in the center of Israel discover an ancient gaming board made of ivory dating back to the time of Solomon.

Now I do realize that any story about people digging holes in Israel these days usually involves tunnels, terrorists, punitive airstrikes and undue human suffering on both sides, however I assure you from the outset that this will have nothing to do with the ongoing lamentable circumstance in the Holy Land and contain instead some ancient casino gambling news. I say ancient because of course there really is only one group of people who would merrily remain but a scant 30 miles from Gaza in the current climate and shovel sand for science. Archaeologists.

Tel Gezer is an ancient ruin that numbers amongst the three cities that the bible tells us was fortified by king and part time wise person Solomon. Of course it should be mentioned that the bible also tells us he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which begs the question “When did he find the time to fortify cities?” but might quite quite easily explain the references to forced labor being employed to achieve completion of these defensive centers.

20 Squares Board Discovered In Israel

• Ancient game akin to backgammon

• Ivory over 4000 years old

• Archaeologists digging casino strategy winning

An international team, containing multiple faiths and political views (just so you know), have recently been excavating the remains of two rooms in a building that appears to show damage from an Egyptian attack in around 918 BC. The attack is referred to in both the bible and Egyptian documents pertaining to the then pharaoh, Shishak and apparently caused several large building stones, measuring a meter and a half in height, to collapse in on the rooms.

Within the midst of the debris left behind there have been some interesting discoveries that have included some pre-Solomonic items and buildings, the remains of dietary items from the era and, perhaps of most interest to us, an extremely rare carved ivory gaming board. Although discovered in pieces the expeditions conservator, Rachael Arenstein, reconstructed it and the team has dubbed the location as “Solomon’s Casino”.

Can You Dig It?

The gaming board is for “The Game Of 20 Squares” which is also known as the rather more grandiose title of “The Royal Game Of Ur” after the location of its first discovery by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in what is now Iraq during the 1920s. The ornate boards date back to the First Dynasty Of Ur making them around 4000 years old and one of the oldest known pieces of gaming equipment yet found. Of course finding the board doesn’t mean you can play the game.

For a start whilst some playing pieces have been found during digs, a full set of seven white and seven black markers, have not, and nor have a complete set of the four tetrahedral dice required for play (tetrahedral, as if you didn’t know, means the dice looked like three sided pyramids) and of course there’s the whole vexed issue of no one having had the foresight to leave a rule book lying around next to these discoveries of ancient gaming.

Thankfully the Babylonians kept some records and from a tablet dating back to around 177 BC (now in the British Museum) a set of rules has been gleaned, reconstructed and then argued about ever since. What is actually agreed on is that the game is a form of race between the two sides in a similar manner to Senet (another ancient game) and may well represent a direct forerunner of the ever popular game of backgammon. However any quibbles about the rules haven’t stopped modern gaming companies releasing reproduction sets for sale.

Apparently so popular was this game in the ancient world that museums the world over have found game boards scratched into the surface of objects that very definitely weren’t designed for the purpose. The British Museum was the first to discover one of these “graffito” boards etched roughly into a human headed winged bull gate sentinel from the Palace of Sargon, which indicates one of the smart strategies for staying awake on guard 2700 years ago was playing 20 Squares.

King Solomon’s Casino

Whilst this newly discovered board was of ivory more humble boards have been found in the same area carved from mere stone, with some pieces and dice also found, indicating that far from being an entirely military fortress the inhabitants enjoyed a leisure time of activities previously unrecognized by the historical records. Of course at the time Tel Gezer was a border crossing point at the cutting edge of urbanization in the region, that it was more diverse than thought shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Whilst primarily focused on an area west of the city gate Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, co-directors of the Tel Gezer archaeological excavations in Israel, tell us that the excavations have made extensive finds and discoveries beyond the gaming boards of Solomon. A well preserved bronze spearhead from somewhere around the 11th century BC, the head of a Philistine-type ceramic figurine and the foot of a possible ceramic feline were all found.

The continued occupation of the location throughout the reign of Solomon and the discovery of such an intricate ivory board has led some to wonder what the casino table manners might be of someone reputed to be “wise”, as if Solomon himself played the game. Certainly its popularity and ubiquity suggests he might have, but we can’t be sure. Certainly his marital status might indicate he’d not have much time for such things, but then, it is good to be king.

The excavations in the area continue despite the dangers because the location is deemed to be between likely trajectories (unlike many other digs across the region that have had to be halted until hostilities have once again subsided to their more usual level) and it remains to be seen just what else will be discovered in the casino of the wise Queen of Sheba satisfy-er, King Solomon.


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