The Royal Game of Ur

Figure 1: A game board from the Jiroft Culture. Note that there are only sixteen spaces.

The story of the game of Ur is the story of time itself. The earliest versions of the Game of Ur that we have date to about 2500 BCE, give or take a century. To the distant south the Egyptians were at the height of their Old Kingdom period. That give or take a century is a large window of time and it is a long time ago, so you can imagine that it could easily have fallen into the unknown, but it didn’t. 

Through archeology a version of this game can be found online and all over the world, but it was a widespread game even in the ancient world. Since its creation, copies of the game spread to Egypt, Elam, the mysterious burnt city of the Jiroft civilization, Crete, and all the way to India. Wherever merchants traveled they took with them the knowledge of this game. We have even found simple versions of the game scraped into rocks for bored guards to play. 

Figure 2: The Game of Ur from the burial pits at Ur.

The world was a different place at this time. Worship of the gods was very open and people had shrines to the gods in their homes. There were great temples and Ziggurats to the gods and had been for a long time, but the temples didn’t have the central authority that they would come to possess many centuries later. King Kubaba could have played this game during her reign in Mari. The entire second dynasty of Kish fits in the window between the earliest estimate that the game could have been invented and the latest. The last descendants of Gilgamesh were just dying out at this time, and Gilgamesh himself was being listed here and there as a god. 

At this time, human sacrifice in kingly burials, a practice that was never common, was finally coming to an end. For us though, this is where the story of the game of Ur begins because this is how the earliest game came to be buried. The oldest copy of the game comes from the burial pits at Ur where Puabi was being buried and it remained there for well over four thousand years. 

The game that we found in that burial pit has twenty squares. It was shaped into a group of six squares and a group of twelve squares separated by a narrow corridor consisting of two squares. Four-sided dice and little tokens were found with the game and we think that the tokens were playing pieces while the dice determined how far each token could move. 

The game has a series of different tiles that, in some versions of the game, could have their positions moved. Game historians have suggested that this is to allow the same board to be used for different versions of the game. This versatility would have made a game board more valuable for the same reason that ancient chess boards were valuable because they could be used for chess, checkers, chaturanga, and chaturaji. 

Figure 3: Game of Ur scratched onto a wall.

The thing is, we don’t know for certain what the various games that could be played on the game of Ur actually were. Writing was still a new thing to the world and there are no known copies of the rules. The game didn’t really die out mind you. One version of the game, a sort of chariot racing game, survived for many centuries and continued to be played in India. It is from this that we have any idea at all how the game was played. 

The great scholar Irving Finkel, Curator for the British Museum, translated a set of rules that date to 177 BCE, more than twenty-two centuries after the earliest versions of the game. Less time separates us from the rule set than separate the rule set from the original version of the game. These rules tell roughly how at least one version of the game was played at the time, but they don’t give a good idea of what the various tiles might have meant for game play. Think of this as being given a chess board with chess pieces and the rules for checkers. 

There is a lot that we still do not know about this mysterious game, but that only means that there is a lot that we have to look forward to. Every new tablet that gets translated lets us take an amazing look into the wonders of the ancient world and it brings their spirits closer to us. 

[Written by Edward VanDerJagt.]

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