Echoes from the past, fears for the future

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC
Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All

from the poem The Prophecy of Neferti,
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. The people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, but the fire and chaos in Cairo is threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tweets are reporting Al Jazeera showing scenes of looting within the museum. The sad news has come of Dr. Zahi Hawass confirming damage and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.

To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations. Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient, but I am consoled by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then perhaps it will take quite a lot more before this particular old man goes anywhere…
I shall show you the land in catastrophe,
what should not happen, happening:
arms of war will be taken up,
and the land will live by uproar….
To the heart, spoken words seem like fire;
what comes from the mouth cannot be endured.
Shrunk is the land–many its controllers.
It is bare–its taxes are great.
Little is the grain–large is the measure,
and it is poured out in rising amounts.
The Sungod separates Himself from mankind.
He will rise when it is time,
but no one knows when midday occurs, no one can distinguish His shadow
~from the poem ‘The Prophecy of Neferti’, written over 3500 years ago
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. While the people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, the fire and chaos in Cairo has been threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tragic reports have come in from Dr. Zahi Hawass himself of some damage by looters and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people of Egypt and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.
To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.
Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure
Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure
Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC
Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC
Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations.
Cattle count model of Meketre
Cattle count model of Meketre
Weaving model of Meketre
Weaving model of Meketre
Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient. I am watching with baited breath for further news of the fate of the objects kept in the museum, a repository of the country’s history and a monument to human achievement. My hopes are buoyed only by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then hopefully this particular henna’d old man is not going anywhere…

The Tale of Sinuhe at the British Museum

If you live in or near London, I highly recommend heading over to the British Museum tomorrow evening (Thursday, November 18th) for a repeat performance of the Tale of Sinuhe at 6:30pm in the atmospheric Egyptian sculpture gallery. It involves a reading of the classic poem by terrific actors Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, with an introduction by Dr. Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper at the museum and expert in Middle Kingdom poetry. Having previously studied the poem both at Toronto and Oxford, I know it fairly well, but I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact of hearing it performed. It’s performed in front of a backdrop of a trio of statues of King Senwosret III, their stern, unforgiving stare a potent reminder of pharaoh’s awe-inspiring power, the failure of which drives the poem’s protagonist to flee Egypt.

It’s thrilling to hear the fear, utter despair, joy, and humour in these ancient words brought to life by through the warmth of  the actors’ voices and Dr. Parkinson’s brilliant translation. Many lines in the poem stand out in a way you’d never notice otherwise, bringing additional layers of nuanced meaning. It is a poem filled with great humanity and lyricism, and a beautiful story of exile and redemption. Never have I felt so near to the people and places that I study everyday. This is ancient Egypt brought to vivid life.

Experiential archaeology: what you can learn from playing games

Experiential archaeology: senet and society
This past weekend was the first time I’d played or watched people play senet in years and it was a really fascinating experience. First of all, it’s rather amazing that people are playing a game 5000 years after it’s invention, in a completely different part of the globe. And that it’s not just because that game has been around for that long, but that it’s actually been resurrected from the ground: rather amusing for a game about rebirth! Our fascination with the past led people to dig up these game boards and reconstruct the rules through painstaking research, and has captured people’s imaginations enough for several different commercially sold editions to be released over the past few decades. Everyone laughed when they saw the ‘made in China’ sticker on the bottom of my senet board! It’s incredible to think that if ancient Egyptians were transported through time to the current day and age, amidst all the televisions, cars, and planes, they could still see people playing senet. In fact, they could even see it being played on television in the hit tv show Lost- the DVD of the show comes with a senet board!
Senet provides a different kind of link to the past. It’s not just an object from antiquity, it’s an experience that allows us to connect directly with the ancient Egyptians’ actions and emotions. Something similar can also be achieved with reading ancient Egyptian poetry and stories, and Dr. Richard Parkinson has organized performances of the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ and the ‘Dialogue of a Man and his Soul’ by actors at the British Museum, the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the University of Swansea conference ‘Experiment and Experience’ (for more on these performances, see Parkinson 2010). I’ve watched several of these performances and they bring the words to life in a way that cannot be achieved even by reading the original papyri. Another dimension is added through the human voice that connects with the listener directly, making all the passion, fear, despair, and joy in the words seem immediate rather than distantly ancient.
Lots of scholars have written about Egyptian games in terms of the archaeological, textual, and visual evidence, but not about the actual experience of playing it. Of course any observations made from playing the game must be taken with a grain of salt since we are not certain about the reconstructed rules. In playing senet this past weekend, everyone really enjoyed the satisfying substantiality of throwing the casting sticks, a more weighty experience than using dice and thus seemingly more significant. Senet is deceptively simple on the surface and its complexity and the importance of strategy become apparent in play. But strategy and the ability to distribute moves between multiple pieces only keeps you safe from pitfalls for so long. Once you’re down to the final piece, a bad throw of the casting sticks can thwart you at the last minute. It’s generally very difficult to call the winner and a player who seems to be behind can quickly bounce back. Drama and tension abound and it can get incredibly competitive. The taunts and insults exchanged in tomb captions from the Old Kingdom make perfect sense. In the game pictured below, by the end, both players had a single game piece each, with each only one step away from the finish: it couldn’t get any closer!
What I found most intriguing though was afterwards, in discussing the mechanics of the game and potential strategies, I commented on the value of keeping pieces together (moving in teams rather than alone to avoid being captured by your opponent), and that it was best not to get too ambitious and move a piece way ahead of its fellows. Suddenly the words clicked in my head. This wasn’t just a description of senet. It could serve equally well as a description of the Egyptians’ exhortations about ideal behaviour and the functioning of society.
Jan Assmann (e.g. 1989, 85–9) views the central Egyptian concept of ma‘at (meaning balance, order, rightness, and justice) as rooted in social solidarity, in which the individual plays an important role, but in which individuality is subordinated to cooperation and conformity. The Loyalist Teaching states: ‘there will be no sleep for the solitary man…. No herd can isolate itself from the walled enclosure, its voice is like the thirsty creature’s outside the well’ (10; Parkinson 1998, 240). As Parkinson states, the text presents ‘the image of mankind as a herd that needs a shepherd (i.e. a leader, king, or god): the herd outside its shelter is prey to animals such as the lion. In the description of a doomed animal, society is presented as a man-made shelter’.
Ambition was also presented as potentially dangerous. In The Teaching of Ptahhotep, lesser-ranking officials are urged to behave according to their station because someone who is too ambitious and pushy will not succeed:
If you are a member of the law courts
Do not overstep, or you will come to be opposed!
Intelligent is the man who enters when announced,
and wide is the access for the man who has been summoned.
The law court is according to the standard;
all behaviour is by measure.
It is God who advances position;
the jostler is not appointed.” (220-31; Parkinson 1998, 254)
Isolating yourself from society (or your other gaming pieces) and advancing beyond your station (or too far ahead on the board) was frowned upon and punishable. For comparison, European texts from the Middle Ages associated games with upholding the existing social order, presenting chess as a manifestation of the divine order of the universe. The game’s rigid rules were used to teach Christian dogma and morality: that God moves humans according to his plan, and the strict social hierarchy cannot be transgressed (Rasskin-Gutman and Klosky 2009, 91).
The role of game metaphors in shaping worldview have also been discussed by the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They suggest that our conceptual systems are fundamentally shaped by cultural constructions; metaphor is an active, conceptual framework that is central to how we understand the world (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Lakoff 1990). For example, we frame our understanding of complex, abstract concepts through metaphors, comparing war to games by likening soldiers to pawns and using phrases like ‘the rules of the game have changed’ about combat, and viewing ‘Life’ in terms of gambling game metaphors, especially in the face of adversity, using phrases like ‘that’s just the luck of the draw’.
Any connection of senet with Egyptian views on society is pure speculation and there isn’t any evidence of the Egyptians using senet as a metaphor for society, but it’s possible that these concepts may have influenced the game design or have figured in people’s experience of playing. A better understanding of the game as an experience, not just a collection of boards and a set of reconstructed rules, might help us further grasp its role in Egyptian culture.
Today people all over the world are still drawn to trying to connect with ancient experience, whether it’s walking the streets of Pompeii or even making ancient Egyptian socks. Until we can climb in a time machine, playing senet might be one of the best ways of creating a connection between ourselves and the past.
http://ancientegyptiansock.blogspot.com/
References:
Assmann, Jan 1989. Maât: l’Egypte pharaonique et l’idée de justice sociale. Paris: Julliard.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ñ 2010. La mort de la poésie: l’histoire des Mémoires de Sinouhé, Bulletin de la Société Française d’Égyptologie 176, 7-29.
Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This past weekend was the first time I’d played or watched people play senet in years (see the post below for an introduction to ancient Egyptian board games). It was a really fascinating experience and it made me think about how the actual game play is perfectly in tune with the ancient Egyptian conceptualization of society. But before all of that: first of all, it’s rather amazing that people are playing a game 5000 years after it’s invention, in a completely different part of the globe. And that it’s not just because that game has been around for that long, but that it’s actually been resurrected from the ground: rather amusing for a game about rebirth! Our fascination with the past led people to dig up these game boards and reconstruct the rules through painstaking research, and has captured people’s imaginations enough for several different commercially sold editions to be released over the past few decades. Everyone laughed when they saw the ‘made in China’ sticker on the bottom of my senet board! It’s incredible to think that if ancient Egyptians were transported through time to the current day and age, amidst all the televisions, cars, and planes, they could still see people playing senet. In fact, they could even see it being played on television in the hit tv show Lost– the DVD of the show comes with a senet board!

Senet and the television show Lost
Senet on the television show Lost

Senet provides a different kind of link to the past. It’s not just an object from antiquity, it’s an experience that allows us to connect directly with the ancient Egyptians’ actions and emotions. Something similar can also be achieved with reading ancient Egyptian poetry and stories, and Dr. Richard Parkinson has organized performances of the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ and the ‘Dialogue of a Man and his Soul’ by actors at the British Museum, the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the University of Swansea conference ‘Experiment and Experience’ (for more on these performances, see Parkinson 2010). I’ve watched several of these performances and they bring the words to life in a way that cannot be achieved even by reading the original papyri. Another dimension is added through the human voice that connects with the listener directly, making all the passion, fear, despair, and joy in the words seem immediate rather than distantly ancient.

Lots of scholars have written about Egyptian games in terms of the archaeological, textual, and visual evidence, but not about the actual experience of playing it. Of course any observations made from playing the game must be taken with a grain of salt since we are not certain about the reconstructed rules. In playing senet this past weekend, everyone really enjoyed the satisfying substantiality of throwing the casting sticks, a more weighty experience than using dice and thus seemingly more significant. Senet is deceptively simple on the surface and its complexity and the importance of strategy become apparent in play. But strategy and the ability to distribute moves between multiple pieces only keeps you safe from pitfalls for so long. Once you’re down to the final piece, a bad throw of the casting sticks can thwart you at the last minute. It’s generally very difficult to call the winner and a player who seems to be behind can quickly bounce back. Drama and tension abound and it can get incredibly competitive. The taunts and insults exchanged in tomb captions from the Old Kingdom make perfect sense. In the game pictured below, by the end, both players had a single game piece each, with each only one step away from the finish: it couldn’t get any closer!

Playing senet at Board Game Camp, London 2010
Playing senet at Board Game Camp, London 2010

What I found most intriguing though was afterwards, in discussing the mechanics of the game and potential strategies, I commented on the value of keeping pieces together (moving in teams rather than alone to avoid being captured by your opponent), and that it was best not to get too ambitious and move a piece way ahead of its fellows. Suddenly the words clicked in my head. This wasn’t just a description of senet. It could serve equally well as a description of the Egyptians’ exhortations about ideal behaviour and the functioning of society.

Jan Assmann (e.g. 1989, 85–9) views the central Egyptian concept of ma‘at (meaning balance, order, rightness, and justice) as rooted in social solidarity, in which the individual plays an important role, but in which individuality is subordinated to cooperation and conformity. ‘The Loyalist Teaching’ states: ‘there will be no sleep for the solitary man…. No herd can isolate itself from the walled enclosure, its voice is like the thirsty creature’s outside the well’ (10; Parkinson 1998, 240). As Parkinson states, the text presents ‘the image of mankind as a herd that needs a shepherd (i.e. a leader, king, or god): the herd outside its shelter is prey to animals such as the lion. In the description of a doomed animal, society is presented as a man-made shelter’.

Ambition was also presented as potentially dangerous. In the ‘Teaching of Ptahhotep’, lesser-ranking officials are urged to behave according to their station because someone who is too ambitious and pushy will not succeed:

If you are a member of the law courts
Do not overstep, or you will come to be opposed!
Intelligent is the man who enters when announced,
and wide is the access for the man who has been summoned.
The law court is according to the standard;
all behaviour is by measure.
It is God who advances position;
the jostler is not appointed.” (220-31; Parkinson 1998, 254)

Isolating yourself from society (or your other gaming pieces) and advancing beyond your station (or too far ahead on the board) was frowned upon and punishable. For comparison, European texts from the Middle Ages associated games with upholding the existing social order, presenting chess as a manifestation of the divine order of the universe. The game’s rigid rules were used to teach Christian dogma and morality: that God moves humans according to his plan, and the strict social hierarchy cannot be transgressed (Rasskin-Gutman and Klosky 2009, 91).

The role of game metaphors in shaping worldview have also been discussed by the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They suggest that our conceptual systems are fundamentally shaped by cultural constructions; metaphor is an active, conceptual framework that is central to how we understand the world (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). For example, we frame our understanding of complex, abstract concepts through metaphors, comparing war to games by likening soldiers to pawns and using phrases like ‘the rules of the game have changed’ about combat, and viewing ‘Life’ in terms of gambling game metaphors, especially in the face of adversity, using phrases like ‘that’s just the luck of the draw’.

Any connection of senet with Egyptian views on society is pure speculation and there isn’t any evidence of the Egyptians using senet as a metaphor for society, but it’s possible that these concepts may have influenced the game design or have figured in people’s experience of playing. A better understanding of the game as an experience, not just a collection of boards and a set of reconstructed rules, might help us further grasp its role in Egyptian culture.

Today people all over the world are still drawn to trying to connect with ancient experience, whether it’s walking the streets of Pompeii or even making ancient Egyptian socks. Until we can climb in a time machine, playing senet might be one of the best ways of creating a connection between ourselves and the past.

Giant senet board outside the Rosicrucian Museum in California, photo by Raymond Yee
Giant senet board outside the Rosicrucian Museum in California, photo by Raymond Yee

References:

Assmann, Jan 1989. Maât: l’Egypte pharaonique et l’idée de justice sociale. Paris: Julliard.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

— 2010. La mort de la poésie: l’histoire des Mémoires de Sinouhé, Bulletin de la Société Française d’Égyptologie 176, 7-29.

Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

‘It’s not just a game, it’s a religion’: games in ancient Egypt

Games in ancient Egypt
“God moves the player and he, the piece.
 What god behind God originates the scheme?”
– Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
One of the things I love most about studying ancient Egypt is that although mummies and pyramids make the Egyptians seem exotic, the more you learn about them, the more that you see that they were just ordinary people with more similarities to us today than you might imagine. There are certain basic, innate human impulses shared by all of humanity- and gaming is one of them. Although games have often been viewed rather dismissively in scholarship, their importance to society and culture is undeniable. In fact, humanity created games long before other more ‘practical’ ancient inventions such as pottery, writing, or the wheel.
This past weekend, I attended an event in London on board games and said a few words about ancient Egyptian games that I thought would be nice to share here as well. It was quite amazing to get people there playing the board game Senet, which was created in Egypt 5000 years ago! (Another post will follow this about the actual experience of playing Senet and how the game play may relate to Egyptian conceptions of society).
Even more incredible though is that there are much older games in existence. They are one of the oldest human creations, dating back 8000 years ago. The earliest evidence for board games in the world comes from the Neolithic Near East, dating to around 6000BCE onwards. Archaeologists in the Levant and Iran have discovered 12 possible gaming boards made of either limestone or plaster with lines of holes or hollows as well as possible gaming pieces (Simpson 2007).
Irving Finkel (2007) discusses the conditions and motivations surrounding the emergence of board games: ‘from the context of their discovery, it is evident that their appearance on the stage of human social evolution coincides with the development of structured and sedentary communal living, associated with shared responsibility and labour. It is under these circumstances that leisure first makes itself apparent, and it is surely leisure that is the prime requirement for the invention and play of board games. In India, there is a prime and eloquent word for this, namely “time-pass”. It has probably always been largely time-pass that has governed the role of board games in the world’.
Games, like life, combine both skill and chance, and they embody a number of primal human preoccupations: survival, competition, the battle, the hunt, the race, social organisation, and counting. A variety of different board games were played in ancient Egypt (others which are not discussed here are Twenty-Squares, originally Mesopotamian in origin, the marble game, and Men ‘endurance’).
Hounds and jackals
Hounds and jackals was a 2-player race game with a shield-shaped board divided into two tracks, one for each player. Each side had had 29 holes, an outer row of 19 and an inner row of 10, with a shared 30th hole in the middle that marked the finish. The playing pegs were long pointed pieces that could be inserted into the holes; 5 had the heads of jackals, and the other 5 had the heads of dogs. Each player would race their 5 pegs to the finish. To make things more interesting, lines drawn connecting holes 6 and 20 and holes 8 and 10 served as either shortcuts or setbacks depending on which end you landed on, and the hieroglyph sign for good marked at holes 15 and 25 may have indicated an extra turn. The game may have been invented around 2100BCE and it spread throughout the Near East (for more information see Hoerth 2007).
Mehen
One of the earliest games in ancient Egypt is known as Mehen, or the serpent game. Mehen was played on a circular board in the form of a coiled snake with the head at the centre and the body divided into squares. It’s the only known multi-player game and representations depict it being played with 6 lion-shaped gaming pieces and 6 marbles. Unfortunately, how these were used is still uncertain. Captions from tomb scenes showing the game being played suggest that it involved the use of strategy, and that part of the game was to capture something, perhaps the opponent’s pieces (for more information see Piccione 1990b; Rothöhler 1999; Kendall 2007).
Senet
The game called Senet, which means ‘passing’, was the most popular game in Egypt. It was played for over 3000 years and a possible derivation of the game survived into 19th century Egypt in the form of the game known as al-tab al-sigah. Senet is also comparable to backgammon in game play. Although there is no recorded set of rules for the game, examination of the 120 examples of game boards that survive, the many representations of the game being played, and various texts that describe it being played, has allowed the reconstruction of the game play.
The game was two-player and essentially a race, each player moving a team of 5 draughtsmen (originally 7 before the New Kingdom) across a board of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares. The objective was to be the first player to move all of their playing pieces off the board. Players could pass and block their opponents’ pieces and possibly even capture them and sent them back to restart from the beginning of mid-point of the board.
Dice-like casting instruments- either 4 casting sticks or 2 knucklebones- were used to determine the number of moves. The casting sticks were semi-cylindrical – one side was flat and painted white, while the other side was rounded, dark coloured, and incised with lines.The sticks were probably used in a similar to the manner in which they were used in modern Egypt as late as the 19th century: The 4 sticks were thrown together and counting number of white or flat sides facing up gave the number of moves. If all of the sticks ended up laying face down, ie. with black, curved side facing up, it counted as 5.
Senet was played by both the rich and the poor. Even though who were less well-off would scratch graffito boards into the ground or onto slabs of stone or broken pottery. We even have a few examples where bored priests scratched the game into the walls of ancient temples! On graffito boards, pebbles or chips of broken pottery would have been used as playing pieces. Formal playing pieces were initially all conical in shape, differentiated with colour and one set being taller than the other, but they evolved into all sorts of different shapes, like animal heads.
More elaborate boards owned by the rich would often have Senet on one side of the board, and a game known as Twenty-Squares that travelled to Egypt from Mesopotamia on the reverse side. The narrow sides of the board had drawers containing the playing equipment. Tutankhamun was buried with 4 senet boards in his tomb.
Senet was not simply a matter of luck because the number of moves thrown with the sticks could be apportioned among the pieces as the player saw fit. For example, if a player rolled a 4, they could choose to move one of their pieces forward four spaces and another piece just one space. Certain squares on the board offered advantages or pitfalls. Sometimes these were indicated by symbols inscribed on the squares, though often they were left blank and just understood, or only inscribed the most important squares. From the last 3 squares, the players had to throw the exact number needed to move off the board. Strategy could be used to avoid dangerous squares or block an opponent pieces from progressing. Moving pieces together in groups protected them from being taken by one’s opponent.
Senet was incredibly popular form of entertainment: a representation of senet in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Nefer-renpet is accompanied by the inscription: “You sit in the hall; you play Senet; you have wine; you have beer” (Decker 1992, 124; Pusch 1979, 87, pl. 24.b). Even as a form of leisure, it wasn’t without intense competition and rivalry. Many other depictions show players exchanging  taunts and insults: in the Old Kingdom tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir (approx. 2300 BCE), one player says: ‘Be happy my heart, for I shall cause you to see it [your piece] taken away!’. His opponent responds: ‘You speak as one weak of tongue, for senet is mine!’.
The evolution of senet and Egyptian afterlife beliefs
Initially Senet was an abstract game and purely secular, however Egyptian culture and their beliefs and fears influenced the game over time so that it developed an accompanying narrative, a story that gave it meaning. Today, most new games are fleshed out from their basic game mechanic with themes and ideas that are meaningful to us, our culture and history, our desires and fears. Similarly to Richard Parkinson’s argument for Egyptian literature offering a permissive context for subversive discourse (e.g. Parkinson 2002, 98-107), games can offer a safe place in which to confront fears and concerns. Even today this is true, for example, numerous modern games draw on the current war in Afghanistan, while the game ‘Flower’ presents a world ravaged by environmental disaster, and the online game ‘Smokescreen’ addresses the potential dangers and privacy issues inherent in social media. For the ancient Egyptians, back in a time when life expectancy was around 30-36 (Nunn 1996, 22; Meskell 2002, 13), death was their greatest fear and their greatest hope was survival for eternity in an idyllic afterlife.
The struggles in the game of Senet began to be associated with the dangers of the journey to the afterlife and the game integrated key narratives of Egyptian religion, telling the story of the struggles of the sun god Ra traversing the underworld by boat each night and fighting off an array of deities, demons, and obstacles. Various elements of game play- certain moves and squares- became associated with specific actions and events in these stories. This change is very understandable, as in ancient Egypt there was no division between secular life and religion: almost everything was imbued with religious belief. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, the board had been transformed a simulation of the netherworld with it’s squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife. Originally in the Old and Middle Kingdom, the last 5 squares of the board had the straightforward and practical meaning of good, bad, three, two, and one, the numbers indicating the exact throw of the sticks you’d need to exit the board. Later on, they developed a more mystical significance and the three numbers were instead usually indicated with a group of three gods or three bas, two gods, and a single figure of the sun god.
The first square in the upper left-hand corner was called the ‘House of Thoth’ since this ibis-headed scribal god held the role of announcing the deceased in the court of judgement. Square 15 at the middle of the board was called the ‘House of Repeating Life’ and was often decorated with the image of a frog, an Egyptian symbol of resurrection. Square 16, the House of Netting, entrapped the player so they missed a turn. Square 27, the Field of Water, could drown the piece that landed there and send it back to square 15 to be  ‘reborn’. The image of the sun god on the final square signified rebirth with the sun god, and whoever moved all of the pieces off the board first would supposedly take his place with the gods.
The story attached to the game enriched it, taking it from simply a form of entertainment and competition, to a meaningful experience: a journey with a sense of urgency and danger. But not only did religion influence the narrative of the game, it actually became part of Egyptian religious beliefs and texts, such as the Book of the Dead, as one of the challenges the deceased could face in his journey to the afterlife. Earlier in Egyptian history, tomb scenes had depicted the tomb owner playing the game with another person, or watching two other people play, purely as a form of entertainment, but when the game became associated with the idea of resurrection and the struggle to reach the afterlife, tomb scenes began to show the deceased playing an invisible opponent as a means to entering the afterlife.
Religious gaming texts describe the journey of the soul through various regions of the afterlife as if it were moving across a senet board. The ‘great game text’, which survives in three sources, describes playing of the game against an unnamed opponent as a way of achieving rebirth and joining the gods in the Afterlife, so:
“[that they might permit] me to enter the Council Chamber of the Thirty, (related to the thirty squares of the game board)
[so that I may become a god, as the thirty-first] (god).
[I will approach Mehen,
and I will deliver] his draughtsmen (to him).
…
<I> will fight as a god with him,
….
My heart is shrewd;
it [is not forgetful].
My heart is clever in determining his play against me,
that <his> draughtsmen might turn backward <on him>.
His fingers are confused,
and his heart has removed [itself] from [its] place,
so that he does not know his response.
….
[I] will pass by [as] one who sails with the breeze together with the Sun Disk to the House of [Repeating] Life,
while my opponent is stopped in the [House of] Netting, which humbles him (holds him back) by means of the meshes’ (Piccione 1990a, 123-38).
This religious association of senet with the afterlife may have been initially born out of the Middle Kingdom concept that living persons could bridge the gap between themselves and their deceased family by playing senet with them. Coffin Text Spell 405 states: ‘Let him play senet with those who are on earth. It is his voice which is heard, (although) he cannot be seen’ (Piccione 1990a, 84). Graffito senet boards have been found scratched into the floors of tomb chapels, possibly as part of a ritual, which could have been conducted during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, when Egyptians visited the tombs of their ancestors.
Games and ancient Egyptian culture
However, it wasn’t just the game of senet that changed in response to Egyptian religion, the games themselves influenced Egyptian life and culture in a myriad of ways. For example, the snake game Mehen influenced religious beliefs long after it stopped being played at the end of the Old Kingdom. In New Kingdom religion, the snake of the board game became a god. Mehen was an immense coiled serpent who encompassed the sun god Ra in his many coils, protecting him and guiding the passage of the sun’s boat through the netherworld each night to be reborn again each dawn. His board game origins seem to have been carried over in the role he took on as the patron protector god of senet players trying to enter the Afterlife. In the Coffin Texts, this dangerous path was called the ‘roads of Mehen’ (Piccione 1990b).
Games, especially senet, also formed a rich part of Egyptian culture, featuring in their writing system, literature, and art. The image of the senet board was used as an important hieroglyphic symbol from the very invention of writing, standing for the phonetic sound ‘mn’. Games feature frequently in art, but not just within tombs, for example the Satirical Papyrus, which shows a lion and an antelope engaging in a (friendly or competitive?) game of Senet.
A demotic tale from the third century BCE tells the story of Setne Khamwas, who breaks into the tomb of the prince and magician Nineferkaptah to acquire the magical ‘Book of Thoth’. There, Setne is challenged by the ghost of the magician to play senet for possession of the book. Setne is beaten three times and after each loss, the ghost beats him over the head with the game box, driving him into the earth. Setne only manages to escape when outside help arrives. As Peter Piccione (1994) has pointed out, here senet once again become associated with rebirth from near-burial, and the supposed protection of the text by a coiled serpent is another reference to Mehen, the snake game/god.
Most people would acknowledge that games can reflect important cultural concepts but the impact they can have on a wider cultural sphere, enriching creativity and even influencing our view of the world, shouldn’t be underestimated, diminished, or disparaged. Ancient Egyptian games teach us that gaming is a universal aspect of humanity: a reflection of who we are, a means of expressing our desires and fears and enacting basic human impulses, and most of all, good fun.
References are listed below, as well as links to where you can play senet online, buy your own board, or find more information. Credit for the research that made this post possible goes especially to Peter Piccione, as well as Edgar Pusch, John Tait, Wolfgang Decker, and Irving Finkel, the organizer of the first colloquium of ancient board games.
Scholarly sources of information online:
‘In Search of the Meaning of Senet’ by Peter Piccione, Archaeology 33 (1980):
www.cofc.edu/~piccione/piccione_senet.pdf
‘Mehen, God of the Boardgames’ by Benedikt Rothöhler, Board Game Studies 2 (1999): www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/issue2/BGS2Rothoehler.pdf
On senet by Peter Piccione:
http://spinner.cofc.edu/~piccione/senet_web.html
The Journal of the International Society for Board Game Studies:
http://boardgamestudies.info/
Play Senet online:
British Museum: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html
Play Senet and other Egyptian games on an iPhone: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html
http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/senet-deluxe/id285831220?mt=8
http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/egyptian-triad/id364907629?mt=8
Where you can buy your own senet board and other ancient games:
In the UK:
Senet: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/senet.htm
Hounds & Jackals: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/hounds-and-jackals.htm
Senet, Royal Game of Ur, & Duodecim Scripta all together (paper boards): http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmc31122/?stylecat=family_gift_shop
Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/ur.htm
http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmcp76360/
Roman Duodecim Scripta: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/duodecim-scripta.htm
Ancient Indian Chess: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/chaturanga.htm
African Mancala: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/mancala.htm
In the USA:
Senet: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Senet/dp/B00005TNHI/
http://www.etsy.com/listing/52919159/senet-board-game-from-ancient-egypt
Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Game-UR/dp/B00005TNHO/
African Mancala: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Folding-Mancala/dp/B000FP30RU/
Viking King’s Table game: http://www.amazon.com/King-27s-Table-Game-2d-9-22/dp/B00005TNHQ/
In Canada:
Senet: http://www.boardgames4us.ca/wex-49-2316.html
http://www.boardgames.ca/senetgame.aspx
References:
Ahern, Emily Martin 1982. Rules in oracles and games Man 17: 302–12.
Decker, Wolfgang 1992. Sports and games of ancient Egypt (trans.) Allen Guttmann. Sport and History Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Finkel, I. L. 2007. Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press.
Hoerth, A.J. 2007. The Game of Hounds and Jackals. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum, 64-8.
Kendall, Timothy 2007. Mehen: The Ancient Egyptian Game of the Serpent. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 33-45.
Meskell, Lynn 2002. Private life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Murray, H. J. R. 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Nunn 1996. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— 2002. Poetry and culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: a dark side to perfection. Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. London and New York: Continuum.
Piccione, Peter A. 1980. In Search of the Meaning of Senet. Archaeology 33: 55-8.
— 1990a. The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and its Significance for Egyptian Religion: University of Chicago.
— 1990b. Mehen, Mysteries, and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27: 43-52.
— 1994. The Gaming Episode in the Tale of Setne Khamwas as Religious Metaphor. In David P. Silverman (ed), For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago, 197-204.
— 2007. The Egyptian Game of Senet and the Migration of the Soul. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 54-63.
Pusch, E.B. 1979. Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten. Munich.
— 2007. The Egyptian “Game of Twenty Squares”: Is it Related to “Marbles” and the Game of the Snake. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 69-86.
Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rothöhler, Benedikt 1999. Mehen, God of the Boardgames. Board Game Studies 2: 10-23.
Simpson, St John 2007. Homo Ludens: The Earliest Board Games in the Near East. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 5-10.
Tait, W. J. 1982. Game-boxes and accessories from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s Tomb Series 7. Oxford: Griffith Institute.
— 1998. Dicing with the gods. In Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (eds), Egyptian religion, the last thousand years: studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. Leuven: Peeters, 257–64.
— 2007. Were there Gamesters in Pharaonic Egypt? In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 46-53.
Tyldesley, Joyce 2007. Egyptian Games and Sports. Princes Risborough: Shire.

‘God moves the player and he, the piece. 
What god behind God originates the scheme?’ – Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

One of the things I love most about studying ancient Egypt is that although mummies and pyramids make the Egyptians seem exotic, the more you learn about them, the more that you see that they were just ordinary people with more similarities to us today than you might imagine. There are certain basic, innate human impulses shared by all of humanity- and gaming is one of them. Although games have often been viewed rather dismissively in scholarship, their importance to society and culture is undeniable. In fact, humanity created games long before other more ‘practical’ ancient inventions such as pottery, writing, or the wheel!

This past weekend, I attended an unconference in London on board games and said a few words about ancient Egyptian games that I thought would be nice to share here as well. It was quite amazing to get people there playing the board game Senet, which was created in Egypt 5000 years ago! (Another post will follow this soon about the actual experience of playing Senet and how the game play may relate to Egyptian conceptions of society).

Even more incredible though is that there are much older games in existence. They are one of the oldest human creations, dating back 8000 years ago. The earliest evidence for board games in the world comes from the Neolithic Near East, dating to around 6000BCE onwards. Archaeologists in the Levant and Iran have discovered 12 possible gaming boards made of either limestone or plaster with lines of holes or hollows as well as possible gaming pieces (Simpson 2007).

Irving Finkel (2007) discusses the conditions and motivations surrounding the emergence of board games: ‘from the context of their discovery, it is evident that their appearance on the stage of human social evolution coincides with the development of structured and sedentary communal living, associated with shared responsibility and labour. It is under these circumstances that leisure first makes itself apparent, and it is surely leisure that is the prime requirement for the invention and play of board games. In India, there is a prime and eloquent word for this, namely “time-pass”. It has probably always been largely time-pass that has governed the role of board games in the world’.

Games, like life, combine both skill and chance, and they embody a number of primal human preoccupations: survival, competition, the battle, the hunt, the race, social organisation, and counting. A variety of different board games were played in ancient Egypt (others which are not discussed here are Twenty-Squares, originally Mesopotamian in origin, the marble game, and Men ‘endurance’).

Hounds and jackals

Hounds and jackals was a 2-player race game with a shield-shaped board divided into two tracks, one for each player. Each side had had 29 holes, an outer row of 19 and an inner row of 10, with a shared 30th hole in the middle that marked the finish. The playing pegs were long pointed pieces that could be inserted into the holes; 5 had the heads of jackals, and the other 5 had the heads of dogs. Each player would race their 5 pegs to the finish. To make things more interesting, lines drawn connecting holes 6 and 20 and holes 8 and 10 served as either shortcuts or setbacks depending on which end you landed on, and the hieroglyph sign for good marked at holes 15 and 25 may have indicated an extra turn. The game may have been invented around 2100BCE and it spread throughout the Near East (for more information on Hounds & Jackals see Hoerth 2007).

Hounds and Jackals board in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hounds and Jackals board in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mehen

One of the earliest games in ancient Egypt is known as Mehen, or the serpent game. Mehen was played on a circular board in the form of a coiled snake with the head at the centre and the body divided into squares. It’s the only known multi-player game and representations depict it being played with 6 lion-shaped gaming pieces and 6 marbles. Unfortunately, how these were used is still uncertain. Captions from tomb scenes showing the game being played suggest that it involved the use of strategy, and that part of the game was to capture something, perhaps the opponent’s pieces (for more information on Mehen see Piccione 1990b; Rothöhler 1999; Kendall 2007).

Mehen board and playing pieces in the British Museum
Mehen board and playing pieces in the British Museum

Senet

The game called Senet, which means ‘passing’, was the most popular game in Egypt. It was played for over 3000 years (from the First Dynasty around 3000BCE until the 1st century CE) and a possible derivation of the game survived into 19th century Egypt in the form of the game known as al-tab al-sigah. Senet is also comparable to backgammon in game play. Although there is no recorded set of rules for the game, examination of the 120 examples of game boards that survive, the many representations of the game being played, and various texts that describe it being played, has allowed the reconstruction of the game play.

New Kingdom ivory senet board in the British Museum
New Kingdom ivory senet board in the British Museum

The game was two-player and essentially a race, each player moving a team of 5 draughtsmen (originally 7 before the New Kingdom) across a board of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares. The objective was to be the first player to move all of their playing pieces off the board. Players could pass and block their opponents’ pieces and possibly even capture them and sent them back to restart from the beginning of mid-point of the board.

Dice-like casting instruments- either 4 casting sticks or 2 knucklebones- were used to determine the number of moves. The casting sticks were semi-cylindrical – one side was flat and painted white, while the other side was rounded, dark coloured, and incised with lines.The sticks were probably used in a similar to the manner in which they were used in modern Egypt as late as the 19th century: The 4 sticks were thrown together and counting number of white or flat sides facing up gave the number of moves. If all of the sticks ended up laying face down, ie. with black, curved side facing up, it counted as 5.

Graffito senet board scratched into a platter, in the British Museum
Graffito senet board scratched into a platter, in the British Museum

Senet was played by both the rich and the poor. Even though who were less well-off would scratch graffito boards into the ground or onto slabs of stone or broken pottery. We even have a few examples where bored priests scratched the game into the floors of temples! On graffito boards, pebbles or chips of broken pottery would have been used as playing pieces. Formal playing pieces were initially all conical in shape, differentiated with colour and one set being taller than the other, but they evolved into all sorts of different shapes, like animal heads.

More elaborate boards owned by the rich would often have Senet on one side of the board, and a game known as Twenty-Squares that travelled to Egypt from Mesopotamia on the reverse side. The narrow sides of the board had drawers containing the playing equipment. Tutankhamun was buried with 4 senet boards in his tomb.

Senet game board from the tomb of Tutankhamun, photo from the archive of the Griffith Institute
Senet game board from the tomb of Tutankhamun, photo from the archive of the Griffith Institute

Senet was not simply a matter of luck because the number of moves thrown with the sticks could be apportioned among the pieces as the player saw fit. For example, if a player rolled a 4, they could choose to move one of their pieces forward four spaces and another piece just one space. Certain squares on the board offered advantages or pitfalls. Sometimes these were indicated by symbols inscribed on the squares, though often they were left blank and just understood, or only inscribed the most important squares. From the last 3 squares, the players had to throw the exact number needed to move off the board. Strategy could be used to avoid dangerous squares or block an opponent pieces from progressing. Moving pieces together in groups protected them from being taken by one’s opponent.

Senet was incredibly popular form of entertainment: a representation of senet in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Nefer-renpet is accompanied by the inscription: “You sit in the hall; you play Senet; you have wine; you have beer” (Decker 1992, 124; Pusch 1979, 87, pl. 24.b). Even as a form of leisure, it wasn’t without intense competition and rivalry. Many other depictions show players exchanging  taunts and insults: in the Old Kingdom tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir (approx. 2300 BCE), one player says: ‘Be happy my heart, for I shall cause you to see it [your piece] taken away!’. His opponent responds: ‘You speak as one weak of tongue, for senet is mine!’.

Senet game in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir
Senet game in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir

The evolution of senet and Egyptian afterlife beliefs

Initially Senet was an abstract game and purely secular, however Egyptian culture and their beliefs and fears influenced the game over time so that it developed an accompanying narrative, a story that gave it meaning. Today, most new games are fleshed out from their basic game mechanic with themes and ideas that are meaningful to us, our culture and history, our desires and fears. Similarly to Richard Parkinson’s argument for Egyptian literature offering a permissive context for subversive discourse (e.g. Parkinson 2002, 98-107), games can offer a safe place in which to confront fears and concerns. Even today this is true, for example, numerous modern games draw on the current war in Afghanistan, while the game ‘Flower’ presents a world ravaged by environmental disaster, and the online game ‘Smokescreen’ addresses the potential dangers and privacy issues inherent in social media. For the ancient Egyptians, back in a time when life expectancy was around 30-36 (Nunn 1996, 22; Meskell 2002, 13), death was their greatest fear and their greatest hope was survival for eternity in an idyllic afterlife.

The struggles in the game of Senet began to be associated with the dangers of the journey to the afterlife and the game integrated key narratives of Egyptian religion, telling the story of the struggles of the sun god Ra traversing the underworld by boat each night and fighting off an array of deities, demons, and obstacles. Various elements of game play- certain moves and squares- became associated with specific actions and events in these stories. This change is very understandable, as in ancient Egypt there was no division between secular life and religion: almost everything was imbued with religious belief. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, the board had been transformed a simulation of the netherworld with it’s squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife. Originally in the Old and Middle Kingdom, the last 5 squares of the board had the straightforward and practical meaning of good, bad, three, two, and one, the numbers indicating the exact throw of the sticks you’d need to exit the board. Later on, they developed a more mystical significance and the three numbers were instead usually indicated with a group of three gods or three bas, two gods, and a single figure of the sun god.

Senet board with secular markings from the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Senet board with secular markings from the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The first square in the upper left-hand corner was called the ‘House of Thoth’ since this ibis-headed scribal god held the role of announcing the deceased in the court of judgement. Square 15 at the middle of the board was called the ‘House of Repeating Life’ and was often decorated with the image of a frog, an Egyptian symbol of resurrection. Square 16, the House of Netting, entrapped the player so they missed a turn. Square 27, the Field of Water, could drown the piece that landed there and send it back to square 15 to be  ‘reborn’. The image of the sun god on the final square signified rebirth with the sun god, and whoever moved all of the pieces off the board first would supposedly take his place with the gods.

Senet board with religious markings in the ROM, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts
Senet board with religious markings in the ROM, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The story attached to the game enriched it, taking it from simply a form of entertainment and competition, to a meaningful experience: a journey with a sense of urgency and danger. But not only did religion influence the narrative of the game, it actually became part of Egyptian religious beliefs and texts, such as the Book of the Dead, as one of the challenges the deceased could face in his journey to the afterlife. Earlier in Egyptian history, tomb scenes had depicted the tomb owner playing the game with another person, or watching two other people play, purely as a form of entertainment, but when the game became associated with the idea of resurrection and the struggle to reach the afterlife, tomb scenes began to show the deceased playing an invisible opponent as a means to entering the afterlife.

Queen Nefertari playing senet, photo from The Yorck Project
Queen Nefertari playing senet, photo from The Yorck Project

Religious gaming texts describe the journey of the soul through various regions of the afterlife as if it were moving across a senet board. The ‘great game text’, which survives in three sources, describes playing of the game against an unnamed opponent as a way of achieving rebirth and joining the gods in the Afterlife, so:

[that they might permit] me to enter the Council Chamber of the Thirty, (related to the thirty squares of the game board)
[so that I may become a god, as the thirty-first] (god).
[I will approach Mehen,
and I will deliver] his draughtsmen (to him).
…
<I> will fight as a god with him,
….
My heart is shrewd;
it [is not forgetful].
My heart is clever in determining his play against me,
that <his> draughtsmen might turn backward <on him>.
His fingers are confused,
and his heart has removed [itself] from [its] place,
so that he does not know his response.
….
[I] will pass by [as] one who sails with the breeze together with the Sun Disk to the House of [Repeating] Life,
while my opponent is stopped in the [House of] Netting, which humbles him (holds him back) by means of the meshes” (Piccione 1990a, 123-38).

This religious association of senet with the afterlife may have been initially born out of the Middle Kingdom concept that living persons could bridge the gap between themselves and their deceased family by playing senet with them. Coffin Text Spell 405 states: ‘Let him play senet with those who are on earth. It is his voice which is heard, (although) he cannot be seen’ (Piccione 1990a, 84). Graffito senet boards have been found scratched into the floors of tomb chapels, possibly as part of a ritual, which could have been conducted during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, when Egyptians visited the tombs of their ancestors.

Games and ancient Egyptian culture

However, it wasn’t just the game of senet that changed in response to Egyptian religion, the games themselves influenced Egyptian life and culture in a myriad of ways. For example, the snake game Mehen influenced religious beliefs long after it stopped being played at the end of the Old Kingdom. In New Kingdom religion, the snake of the board game became a god. Mehen was an immense coiled serpent who encompassed the sun god Ra in his many coils, protecting him and guiding the passage of the sun’s boat through the netherworld each night to be reborn again each dawn. His board game origins seem to have been carried over in the role he took on as the patron protector god of senet players trying to enter the Afterlife. In the Coffin Texts, this dangerous path was called the ‘roads of Mehen’ (Piccione 1990b).

Mehen the snake god coiling around the sun god in protection, photo by dalberal
Mehen the snake god coiling around the sun god in protection, photo by dalbera

Games, especially senet, also formed a rich part of Egyptian culture, featuring in their writing system, literature, and art. The image of the senet board was used as an important hieroglyphic symbol from the very invention of writing, standing for the phonetic sound ‘mn’. Games feature frequently in art, but not just within tombs, for example the Satirical Papyrus, which shows a lion and an antelope engaging in a (friendly or competitive?) game of Senet.

A senet game on the Satirical Papyrus at the British Museum
A senet game on the Satirical Papyrus at the British Museum

A demotic tale from the third century BCE tells the story of Setne Khamwas, who breaks into the tomb of the prince and magician Nineferkaptah to acquire the magical ‘Book of Thoth’. There, Setne is challenged by the ghost of the magician to play senet for possession of the book. Setne is beaten three times and after each loss, the ghost beats him over the head with the game box, driving him into the earth. Setne only manages to escape when outside help arrives. As Peter Piccione (1994) has pointed out, here senet once again become associated with rebirth from near-burial, and the supposed protection of the text by a coiled serpent is another reference to Mehen, the snake game/god.

Games can reflect important cultural concepts and the impact they can have on a wider cultural sphere, enriching creativity and even influencing our view of the world, shouldn’t be underestimated, diminished, or disparaged as often is the case today. Ancient Egyptian games teach us that gaming is a universal aspect of humanity: a reflection of who we are, a means of expressing our desires and fears and enacting basic human impulses, and most of all, good fun.

References are listed below, as well as links to where you can play senet online, buy your own board, or find more information. Credit for the research that made this post possible goes especially to Peter Piccione, as well as Edgar Pusch, John Tait, Wolfgang Decker, and Irving Finkel, the organizer of the first colloquium of ancient board games.

Scholarly online sources of information:

‘In Search of the Meaning of Senet’ by Peter Piccione, Archaeology 33 (1980)

‘Mehen, God of the Boardgames’ by Benedikt Rothöhler, Board Game Studies 2 (1999)

On senet by Peter Piccione

The Journal of the International Society for Board Game Studies

Play Senet online at the British Museum website:

http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html

Play Senet and other Egyptian games on an iPhone:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/senet-deluxe/id285831220?mt=8

http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/egyptian-triad/id364907629?mt=8

Where you can buy your own senet board and other ancient games:

In the UK:

Senet: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/senet.htm

Hounds & Jackals: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/hounds-and-jackals.htm

Senet, Royal Game of Ur, & Duodecim Scripta all together (paper boards): http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmc31122/?stylecat=family_gift_shop

Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/ur.htm

http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmcp76360/

Roman Duodecim Scripta: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/duodecim-scripta.htm

Ancient Indian Chess: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/chaturanga.htm

African Mancala: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/mancala.htm

In the USA:

Senet: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Senet/dp/B00005TNHI/

http://www.etsy.com/listing/52919159/senet-board-game-from-ancient-egypt

Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Game-UR/dp/B00005TNHO/

African Mancala: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Folding-Mancala/dp/B000FP30RU/

Viking King’s Table game: http://www.amazon.com/King-27s-Table-Game-2d-9-22/dp/B00005TNHQ/

In Canada:

Senet: http://www.boardgames4us.ca/wex-49-2316.html

http://www.boardgames.ca/senetgame.aspx

References:

Ahern, Emily Martin 1982. Rules in oracles and games Man 17: 302–12.

Decker, Wolfgang 1992. Sports and games of ancient Egypt (trans.) Allen Guttmann. Sport and History Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Finkel, I. L. 2007. Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press.

Hoerth, A.J. 2007. The Game of Hounds and Jackals. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum, 64-8.

Kendall, Timothy 2007. Mehen: The Ancient Egyptian Game of the Serpent. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 33-45.

Meskell, Lynn 2002. Private life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Murray, H. J. R. 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nunn 1996. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

— 2002. Poetry and culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: a dark side to perfection. Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. London and New York: Continuum.

Piccione, Peter A. 1980. In Search of the Meaning of Senet. Archaeology 33: 55-8.

— 1990a. The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and its Significance for Egyptian Religion, Ph.D. thesis. University of Chicago.

— 1990b. Mehen, Mysteries, and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27: 43-52.

— 1994. The Gaming Episode in the Tale of Setne Khamwas as Religious Metaphor. In David P. Silverman (ed), For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago, 197-204.

— 2007. The Egyptian Game of Senet and the Migration of the Soul. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 54-63.

Pusch, E.B. 1979. Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten. Munich.

— 2007. The Egyptian “Game of Twenty Squares”: Is it Related to “Marbles” and the Game of the Snake. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 69-86.

Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rollefson, Gary O., A Neolithic Game Board from Ain Ghazal, Jordan, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286 (May, 1992), 1–5.

Rothöhler, Benedikt 1999. Mehen, God of the Boardgames. Board Game Studies 2: 10-23.

Simpson, St John 2007. Homo Ludens: The Earliest Board Games in the Near East. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 5-10.

Tait, W. J. 1982. Game-boxes and accessories from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s Tomb Series 7. Oxford: Griffith Institute.

— 1998. Dicing with the gods. In Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (eds), Egyptian religion, the last thousand years: studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. Leuven: Peeters, 257–64.

— 2007. Were there Gamesters in Pharaonic Egypt? In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 46-53.

Tyldesley, Joyce 2007. Egyptian Games and Sports. Princes Risborough: Shire.

A History of the World in 100 objects: Poetry, mathematics & myth at the British Museum

This Thursday, February 18th, the British Museum is holding a free evening of events in connection with their ongoing series with BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects. It sounds like there will be lots of fun events over the course of the evening (18:30-20:30), especially a performance of the Tale of Sinuhe, bringing the dramatic adventures in the poem to life, as well as a talk about the Ramesses II colossus. I myself will be giving a couple of very brief, basic introductory workshops on hieroglyphs. There is also a lecture by Dr. Richard Parkinson at 18:30 on ‘Same-Sex Desire in Ancient Egypt’ and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (£5, concessions £3).

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:
Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test.
All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4
PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING
18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30
Babylonian fingers
Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs.
Room 10a
18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20
The world above, the world below
Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56
19.15–19.45
Ozymandias
Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem.
Room 4
19.30–19.45
Centaur and Lapith
In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18
19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00
The Sphinx of Taharqo
Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65
19.45–20.30
The Tale of Sinuhe
The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4
WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS
TALKS
18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30
Hieroglyph workshop
A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4
18.45–19.45
Ancient Egyptian civil service test
Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61
18.40, 19.20 & 20.00
Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.
Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
19.00–19.45
The story of ancient beer
Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made.
Great Court
Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
18.50–19.15
The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria
The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7
19.05–19.40
Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56
19.45–20.30
Code breaking
Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher.
Room 17
Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:

Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test. All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4

PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING

18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30

Babylonian fingers

Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs. Room 10a

18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20

The world above, the world below

Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56

19.15–19.45

Ozymandias

Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem. Room 4

19.30–19.45

Centaur and Lapith

In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18

19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00

The Sphinx of Taharqo

Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65

19.45–20.30

The Tale of Sinuhe

The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4

WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS

TALKS

18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30

Hieroglyph workshop

A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4

18.45–19.45

Ancient Egyptian civil service test

Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61

18.40, 19.20 & 20.00

Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.

Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

19.00–19.45

The story of ancient beer

Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made. Great Court

Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

18.50–19.15

The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria

The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7

19.05–19.40

Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56

19.45–20.30

Code breaking

Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher. Room 17

Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

Tweeting about Egypt

So, as you may have noticed, I’ve been focussing on other things lately and not really updating this blog as I should. I do hope to be able to get back to it some time in the near future, but until then I’ve decided that an interesting, different, and simpler approach might be to use Twitter to share more consise information and thoughts about ancient Egypt. If you haven’t come across Twitter before, it’s a real time short messaging service where you can follow certain people and receive tidbits of news or info from them whenever they update. In some places you can even receive the messages on your mobile phone. I’ll try to post one interesting thing about Egypt everyday on a range of subjects, sometimes random interesting things I come across and sometimes a week-long series on a specific topic. You can either just periodically check out the site where I’ll be updating at www.twitter.com/eloquentpeasant or even sign up to Twitter to get notifications. At the moment I’m starting off on a fairly general note with facts about Egypt’s beginnings, geography, and climate. Please feel free to share interesting tidbits that you’ve come across as well or suggestions for themes you’d be interested in- hope you enjoy!

Wonderful new gallery of Ancient Egyptian Life and Death at the British Museum now open

It may have seemed just a typical grey winter’s day in London yesterday, but in a small room on Great Russell Street some very different scenes were unfolding. Beautifully attired men and women gathered for a banquet, watching musicians and dancers, with huge vats of wine wreathed with floral garlands and tables heavily laden with a rich array of food and bouquets of exotic flowers. Nearby, a family was out together on the water for a pleasure cruise and hunting trip, enjoying the beauties of nature as flocks of brightly coloured birds, fish, and butterflies rose in great swirls of movement around them.

Yesterday at the British Museum, the tomb paintings of Nebamun, some of the most famous images in Egyptian art, were finally unveiled again in a new permanent gallery after 10 years of conservation.

On Tuesday night I attended a reception for the opening of the gallery. It was a moment that many people worked long and hard for, from the conservators to the museum assistants, and not least its curator Richard Parkinson. And it was a triumph. It is not only the extraordinary paintings, beautifully restored, that make the gallery such a success–the remarkable reorganization of their display and the design of the gallery completely transforms the way visitors will interact with the museum’s Egyptian collection.

In the past, hundreds of monumental stone sculptures and crowd-thrilling mummies have dominated the museum’s displays, but now visitors will have a chance to see the Egyptians as ordinary people just like them, filled with hopes, fears, and desires. The design of the gallery with its lovely limestone panelling conveys the feeling of the actual tomb. The gallery is small enough to give it a feeling of intimacy, without feeling confined–I only hope it can withstand the extent of the crowds that often swarm through the museum.

Before the paintings were removed from display for conservation purposes (a complex process that involved everything from removing harmful plaster of paris backing to reversing Victorian ‘corrections’ made to the paintings!), they were previously displayed in frames, arranged along the wall as if in an art gallery. The paintings are now arranged according to their likely original locations in the tomb, exhibited on a slightly reclining angle to protect them. Their new integrated display allows the tomb’s message to speak, rather than imposing a Western concept of art on them. It allows the paintings to be exhibited in a way that conveys a sense of their original connectedness, giving a sense of the original unified design space–a place commemorating Nebamun, where friends and family could visit and bring offerings for his spirit in the afterlife. To further convey the sense of what the tomb would have been like, there is video display of a digital recreation of the site and tomb interior, which should also be online soon in an interactive version.

Another remarkable touch is that if you look through the cases that display daily life objects from that era, you can see through to the paintings hanging beyond and actually see the painted depictions of incredibly similar items being used by Nebamun, his friends, family, and workers. Amazingly the cases containing the paintings themselves use non-reflective glass so there’s no glare to impede your view- it almost feels like the glass isn’t there at all.

Several people spoke during the evening, including the director of the museum and the Times Briton of the Year, Neil MacGregor, who spoke amongst other things about how the gallery would bring visitors in touch with real ancient Egyptian people, for example the amazingly preserved loaf of bread that still bears the fingerprints of the baker.

Sir Ronald Cohen, known as the father of venture capitalism, who generously contributed to the funding of the gallery. His personal involvement in the region is an extraordinary story. Cohen is the British son of a Syrian Jew and was born in Egypt. In 1998, he was presented with Israel’s highest tribute, the Jubilee award, as “one of the visionaries who have done the most to facilitate Israel’s integration into the global economy”, and then in 2005 he established the Portland Trust to help the Palestinians “build up a powerful economy . . . based on a deep level of interdependence with Israel”. He spoke very eloquently about naming it in honour of his father Michael Cohen, a lovely gesture that echoes the image of Nebamun being honoured by his son.

The new Egyptian ambassador to Britain, who officially opened the gallery, used his speech to highlight parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Amarna correspondence, written shortly after Nebamun’s life, in which chieftains in the region of Palestine wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh asking for help defending themselves against attacking forces. During the course of the evening, I also spotted Cherie Blair eagerly looking around the gallery.

If you’d like a little taster of what to expect, there are some great videos featuring footage of the paintings and the new gallery itself and interviews with Dr. Richard Parkinson, the Egyptologist who masterminded the whole project at the Telegraph and the Times.

Much has been written about the gallery over the past couple of weeks. One of the most informative is a wonderful piece in the Guardian Weekly in Dr. Parkinson’s own words. There have been numerous other very positive and well-written articles about the gallery, all of which I’ve found interesting reading, for example in the Guardian, and also from an Egyptian perspective,
Over the past few years, I myself was very lucky to have  the amazing opportunity to work the paintings over the summer months that I spent as a curatorial intern at the British Museum. When I was a teenager, I actually had a poster of the painting of Nebamun fowling in the marshes in my room, so needless to say it was an extraordinary experience. One of the things I was able to do was contributing to the descriptions of the paintings  in Chapter Three of the book ‘The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun: Masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art in the British Museum‘.

Nebamun

The Nebamun tomb paintings in storage
For this task, my fellow intern Ally and I sat in front of them for hours, examining them in minute detail and considering the individual brushstrokes. Every time I looked at them, a new detail would catch my eye. The paintings are incredibly skillfully produced, exhibiting numerous delicate techniques used to produce various textures and effects. But at the same time, they are no means perfect, the erosion of the paint revealing original sketch lines, corrections, and gridlines. There is a liveliness to the innovative composition, tightly interweaving figures to produce both movement and a wonderful sense of harmony. While many of the images are standard scenes that had been appearing in tombs for hundreds of years, the artists managed to breathe fresh life into them, in ways never seen before in Egyptian art.

In the course of their conservation and examination, wonderful details were newly noted that had somehow never been observed before since the paintings arrived at the British Museum 190 years ago, such as the real gold used on the cat’s eye and the green paint on the left-hand side of the garden scene that can be reconstructed as a large sycomore fig tree.

The value of the paintings lies not only in their artistic merit though, but also in what they can tell us about Egyptian life. The gallery isn’t solely devoted to the paintings of the tomb chapel of Nebamun. Under the curatorship of Dr. Richard Parkinson, objects that further illuminate the lives of the people illustrated in the paintings have been woven into the gallery to infuse our understanding of the idealized Egyptian life depicted in the paintings with details of the realities. You can see the colourful painting materials and slightly unwieldy-looking brushes with which the artists worked their magic, as well as the possessions of both the rich and the poor, from fishing nets to board games to dazzling jewellery.

It was very interesting to see the process of choosing the objects to be displayed go through various stages of selection and whittling down. Like most museums, the British Museum can only display a fraction of their collections, partially due to space limitations and repetition of objects, but also because there is a delicate balance to be achieved in what is useful to furthering visitors’ knowledge and how much they can absorb. While it would be nice to include as many objects as possible, cluttering a small space might mean that people miss seeing key artifacts and lose sight of the message the gallery is trying to convey. It’s not just a desire for clarity that can be restrictive though, there is also consideration of the preservation of the objects. The most impressive object that didn’t make it into the final gallery was a magnificent finely-woven linen tunic, which would have needed such low lighting to preserve it from further degradation that you wouldn’t have been able to see the rest of the objects!

One of the other tasks I helped out with in preparation for the new gallery was a final desperate attempt to shed more light on the whereabouts of the lost tomb from which the paintings had been brutally removed so long ago. Although we know Nebamun’s tomb was located in Dra’ Abu el-Naga, we know little more. In vain, I scoured published archaeological records like Friederike Kampp’s survey of Theban tombs for any shred of evidence that might point to a known tomb being a potential location for Nebamun. While there were quite a few other Nebamuns buried in the area, all of them had details that ruled the BM’s Nebamun out. I wasn’t even able to identify a single tomb dated to the right era that was lacking any other defining information. There is a slim possibility that Nebamun’s tomb may still lie buried under further accumulations of debris, waiting to be rediscovered, but it may be so completely destroyed that it will forever remain unidentifiable.

The good news though is that now that the paintings have been restored and put on display again, Nebamun can be rediscovered by millions of people from around the world, and the gallery will breathe life once again into our understanding of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, who were so much more than just the sum of their statues and mummies.

Qurna

Egypt bound

Sorry I haven’t updated the site in so long! I’ve been rather busy with my thesis, teaching, and life in general, but I hope to be able to post some interesting entries soon, as I am off to Egypt for the next 7 weeks. I will be working at the Ramesside site of Kom Firin in the Western Delta, which you can read all about here. There are also some nice photos of Kom Firin here. Then I will be doing some travelling to various places in and around Cairo, and then in Middle Egypt, visiting Amarna, and also doing some of my own research in Beni Hassan and the Middle Kingdom tomb sites of the region. I hope I’ll get the chance to update at bit while I’m there and more will follow when I return!

Grauman’s Egyptian Theater

I was recently in Los Angeles and decided to go have a quick look at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, an important building in the Egyptian Revival style constructed in 1922, which I wrote about in my last post. I assumed that even though it wouldn’t be open, I would be able to look around the outside, but unfortunately the whole complex is gated so I could only glimpse through the bars at the outermost courtyard. Nevertheless, I managed to take some photos (of dubious quality, though I blame the gate) and thought I’d post them here. A lot of Egyptian-inspired buildings only give the slightest nod to actual Egyptian design so its quite nice to see that the facade is reminiscent of temple pylons and even the palm trees could be interpreted as real-life versions of palmiform columns. It’s a shame that it’s not generally open to the public though, since perhaps more people would take the time to appreciate it. You’d hardly notice the building if you were just walking past, and while there were swarms of tourists around Grauman’s other more famous cinema, the Chinese Theater, no one was looking at the Egyptian Theatre. Still, American Cinematheque have done a great job restoring it and hopefully I’ll get the chance to go back and look around properly one day.

The Egyptian Theater exterior, now the American Cinematheque


The Courtyard

The Egyptian sign

Deity parade

Amun-Re

A king

Sekhmet

Winged guardians
(presumable inspired by Isis & Nephthys but someone wasn’t sure about their headdresses)

A slightly bizarre looking scene that I couldn’t get close enough to, involving amongst other things a lot of free-floating objects or hieroglyphs (sort of à la First Intermediate Period) and a figure that could be interpreted as Seth wearing a pot on his head. Though it might not be.

One last view of Grauman’s

Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.

Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.

I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.

As Handy states:

‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that “every star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood.

Grauman theater

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theater’s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing “a jam of people and motor cars … extending in all directions” while “the picture stars were wildly greeted” and numerous photos taken of the “kaleidoscopic human spectacle.”

The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummy’s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…

Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Grauman’s Egyptian “is not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.”

For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Grauman’s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theater’s “playful” design elements, but noted, “Nothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.” He pointed to the decoration of the theater’s massive lintel: “A winged scarab flanked by what—swans? No, that doesn’t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I don’t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didn’t appear in the art really”.’

Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.

Grauman detail

Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient world’s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the West’s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.

Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.

Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:

‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’

Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.

Although Grauman’s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.

The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.

As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:

‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Victor Buono’s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martin’s novelty song “King Tut” (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a “condo made of stone-a”), or Brendan Fraser’s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egypt’s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.

None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.

I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.

I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.

For further reading on Egyptomania, I can recommend Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture, a nice collection of essays on examples from around the world.

Grauman sign

Sign for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Kevin Stanchfield.