At Goliath’s Gath, board games give relatable insight into daily lives of Canaanites

New research into the proliferation of senet, an Egyptian game, shows osmosis of dominant culture and local adaptation; game still played today in Sinai

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

An ancient gameboard from Tell es-Safi/Gath. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)
An ancient gameboard from Tell es-Safi/Gath. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

All work and no play makes Goliath a dull boy. A recent Palestine Exploration Quarterly article charts an unprecedented number of 4,500-year-old gameboards and game pieces discovered in an Early Bronze Age neighborhood at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, home of the notorious biblical bully.

While the four gameboards, multiple dice and several carved pieces uncovered at Gath wouldn’t have been used by the giant slain by the future king David (Goliath entered popular culture through a biblical tale that may have taken place by a good millennium and a half later), they do offer insight into the lives and leisure time in the Levant, circa 2800–2600 BCE. Likewise, the proliferation and choice of board game — a derivative of the Egyptian game senet — aids researchers in understanding the osmosis of culture between ancient Canaan and Egypt.

According to the article, “Daily Life and Cultural Appropriation in Early Bronze Age Canaan: Games and Gaming in a Domestic Neighborhood at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel,” gameboards and pieces artifacts from the Neolithic period onwards have been found in the southern Levant. Evidence for one of the particular games discovered at Gath — senet — is seen in Egypt in the late 4th–early 3rd millennium BCE.

The other game that may have been played at Gath is called “30 Houses,” which is a Canaanite adaptation of senet. “If so, this is the earliest evidence of the ‘30 Houses’ game from the southern Levant and the only one from the Early Bronze Age,” write the authors.

Lead author Dr. Shira Albaz, the manager of Bar-Ilan University’s Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, told The Times of Israel that when she first arrived at the excavation in 2009, longtime director Prof. Aren Maeir suggested that rather look toward monumental buildings and events, she focus her research on what everyday people did every day.

“When we found the second gameboard and the pieces of games, we said there is probably something here, so let’s try to investigate and see if there are more potential game pieces and boards,” Albaz said. She dug up more in the excavation’s archives — the dig has been ongoing since 1997 — and began searching for other examples at other Early Bronze Age Levant sites.

A carved stone game piece from Tell es-Safi/Gath. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)
Dr. Shira Albaz, the manager of Bar-Ilan University’s Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

“We started to see if we could understand which game was being played, the role of games in daily life — and did people have time to play?” said Albaz. Albaz herself doesn’t seem to have much leisure time as she is completing a postdoc at the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies in the School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures at the University of Haifa.

Albaz discovered that “30 Houses” board games were found at several Canaanite Early Bronze Age sites, including Megiddo, where three board games date to circa 3600–3100 BCE. Additionally, evidence of 55 board games were discovered in the Early Bronze Age II levels (circa 3100–2500 BCE) at Arad. Albaz said that at Gath, three separate boards were found, one of which was double-sided and possibly serving children on one side and adults on the other.

Many believe that Early Bronze Age society was subsistence in nature — devoted to building homes, preparing food, making tools, said Albaz. “But you cannot work all day,” she said. “They must have taken breaks and taken time for resting… and not only for breaks from work and life, but also for fulfilling the self.”

She said it is very easy to overlook gameboards and pieces and that some of the game boards from Gath were found in secondary use while dismantling walls. “In the beginning, I thought it was a regular stone, but when we checked we saw the carving, washed it and understood it was really a board game,” said Albaz.

The board games were found in the courtyards where people would have spent most of their time in daily activities, including cooking and tool making. On the ground in a small alley between homes, the excavators discovered most of the dice, made out of worn and polished astragalus or ankle bones. Albaz explained that to make the alleyway smooth, ancient residents would “pave it” with garbage that they threw out of their windows.

Worn ankle bones used as dice for games (and fortune telling) at Early Bronze Age Gath. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

She said it is quite possible that many more boards and pieces have been missed and therefore don’t appear in the archaeological record. In modern Israel, children play competitive games with apricot pits or five square stones. In the past, too, organic material may have been used for games and decomposed.

The gameboards found in Canaan were modestly crafted out of soft chalk typical of the locale, as opposed to Egypt, where sets are found in tombs carved in ivory and inlaid with mother of pearl. “But for sure the common people [of Egypt] also had games,” she said.

According to the article, the word senet is a form of the Egyptian verb “to pass,” which shows how the pieces are moved along the 30 square “houses” on the board. “The senet game is a race game, and the goal is to win by being the first to reach the final squares on the board.”

The researchers believe the game was invented in Egypt in the Predynastic Period and brought to Canaan in the Early Bronze Age. “This is a period [of] intensive connections between Canaan and Egypt, including at times the physical presence of Egyptians in Canaan,” write the authors.

Ancient game boards from Tell es-Safi/Gath. (Maria Eniukhina/Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

From the senet gameboard, “the Canaanite inhabitants clearly adopted/appropriated the Egyptian game” to create the Canaanite version, “30 Houses.”  According to the authors, “Senet continues to be played, until this very day, in Sudan, Egypt, south Sinai and the Negev.”

As part of their research, the team took to the lab and attempted to recreate a senet game based on what was found at Gath. Then they tried to play it.

Albaz said it was a short, fun game. “When we played it, it was similar to Snakes and Ladders. Really the same — except we don’t have the snakes and ladders,” she laughed.

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