Mysterious ancient stone spheres found across Aegean and Mediterranean settlements were potentially used in a pre-historic board game! A new study, aided by artificial intelligence (A.I.), has examined common features across 700 stones believed to be 3,600 and 4,500 years old, found at the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini.
The prehistoric Cycladic Bronze Age (3200 – c. 1050 BC) settlement was destroyed in the Theran eruption sometime in the 16th century BC and was covered in volcanic ash. Just like in Pompeii, the volcanic ash acted as an archaeological preservative , resulting in fine frescoes, artifacts, and artwork being discovered since excavations began at the site in 1967.
“The exact use of such artefacts remains a mystery, possible interpretations suggest that they are a form of counting system or counters for board games ,” write the authors of the new study.
Groups of ancient stone spheres from Akrotiri. ( Konstantinos Trimmis )
Stones, Stones, Ancient Stone Spheres Galore
Archaeologists from the University of Bristol – Christianne Fernée and Konstantinos Trimmis from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, had published a study along similar grounds just last year. Perfecting on their earlier work, their new study has been published in The Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports , which also suggests alternate explanations for the stone spheres – slingshot stones, tossing balls, for a counting/record-keeping system, or as counters/pawns.
“Similar stones have been discovered in Crete, in other Aegean islands, in Cyprus,” says Dr. Trimmis. “They’re all coming out of excavations and people are always puzzled about what the stones are.”
The previous study had shown that the ancient stone spheres varied in size, in specific clusters, and collections of spheres, which is where some kind of coded pattern or game logic lay. That’s when the adoption of AI and machine learning was implemented, with a desire to explore patterns with these spheres, and see if that initial insight suggested something much more.
The stones are no bigger than golf balls and made from various colors and materials. There are also stone slabs with shallow cup marks (called kernos), suggesting this was where the spheres were placed. Ultimately, 2 groups of larger stones and 2 groups of smaller stones were categorized separately in the analysis.
The kernos (slab with cup marks) at the square of the House of the Benches and an interpretation of how the spheres could be associated. ( Konstantinos Trimmis )
Board Games: A Competitive History
Dr. Ferneé said, “The most important finding of the study is that the spheres fit two major clusters (one of smaller and one of larger stones). This supports the hypothesis that they were used as counters for a board game with the spheres most possibly have been collected to fit these clusters rather than a counting system for which you would expect more groupings.”
The oldest known examples of board games in the world come from the region of the Levant and Egypt – specifically the Egyptian Mehen and Senet games. Senet was played as early as 3100 BC, when the First Dynasty was on its way out, according to a Smithsonian Report , whereas Mehen was played somewhere between 3100 and 2300 BC. Mehen declined with the fall of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, and so its rules remain something of a mystery.
Depiction of an ancient Egyptian queen playing senet (‘game of death’) from Nefertari’s burial chamber, wife of Ramses II. ( Public Domain )
These weren’t the only ancient board games though – Roman legions passed time through Ludus Latrunculorum , or the ‘Game of Mercenaries.’ The Vikings were playing Hnefatafl in Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. In the east , in India, Chaturanga was born, which interestingly laid a foundation for modern chess.
In 2013, remnants of the world’s oldest gaming pieces were discovered from 5,000 years ago in southeast Turkey, created by a group of Bronze Age humans. That game, incidentally, was also an elaborate set of sculpted stones.
Dr. Trimmis put the game into a larger historical context, saying, “The social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, further supports the idea of the spheres being part of a game that was played for social interaction. This gives a new insight into the social interaction in the Bronze Age Aegean .”
They now plan to apply this methodology to the stone slabs, to find any possible clustering in the cup marks. They also hope to use this AI to determine how the game was played, its rules, and how it compared to other games from the same era.
Top image: Achilles and Ajax engaged in a game of “pessi” an ancient Greek board game. Mysterious ancient stone spheres may have been used in a board game. Source: Egisto Sani / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
By Sahir Pandey