The ancient invention that started the game

No one knows where or when the custom arises of numbering the opposite sides of a cubic dice so that each opposing pair adds up to seven. Irving Finkel, philologist and expert on Mesopotamian language and culture at the British Museum, suggests that people might have thought that this made the dice “fair”, although there is no scientific reason for it. Whatever the logic, the tradition has remained, and almost every example of six-sided dice throughout history has opposing sides totaling up to seven.

The first dice were almost certainly not six-sided. In fact, the ossicle dice could have been tossed for the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions before being numbered, with the two larger and flattest sides providing the result, Finkel explains. One side could have been charcoal rubbed so that one face was black and one white.

There are other contenders for the first dice; two-sided throwing sticks were used in ancient Egypt around the same time, “which long preceded the making of six-sided dice,” says Finkel, and four-sided pyramids were used in the Middle East.

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It’s impossible to know exactly which games played with dice came first, says Ulrich Schädler, director of the Swiss Gaming Museum, unless the materials are carved from stone or bone. Some of the first games we can be sure of include a so called “20 squares” in which players run counters on a 20 square board, some of which are safe, some of which are shared with your opponent, giving them a chance to send. your counter at the start. The game has been compared to backgammon.

Versions of this game have been found in North Africa, Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, the most notable example of which is the royal game of Ur, named after the ancient city of Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The Ur board, inlaid with a mosaic of seashells and played with a pyramid-shaped dice, dates from the middle of the third millennium BC and is on display at the British Museum. It was finkel who discovered their period.

Another game called senet was played in Egypt around the same time. Many well-preserved planks have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs and depicted in murals.

But Schädler says games like this weren’t just played by royalty. The Ur board is exquisite, but simple boards have been carved into stone or even the earth. He says it’s hard to know how earlier versions of these games developed if they were played on land with pebbles, so the planks made for the wealthy left in the burial chambers and the artwork on the walls provide the best materials to work with.

“Things like this only appear in high ancient civilizations like Egypt, Ur and the Indus Valley [around modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan], says Schädler.

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