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Royal Game of Ur

Royal Game of Ur

Royal Game of Ur

The Royal Game of Ur is an ancient game represented by two game boards found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq and date from before 2,600 BC. The rules of the game are known based on the discovery of clay cuneiform tablets from Babylonian dating from 177–176 BC. The rules show that it was a form of a racing game like the present-day backgammon.

The Royal Game of Ur was played with two sets of seven markers, one black and one white, and some tetrahedral dice which are composed of four triangular faces, so unlike modern dice with six sides this game had tetrahedral dice with four faces.

The game is also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, and a graffiti version of the game was discovered on one of the human-headed winged bull gate sentinels from the palace of Sargon II (721–705 BC) indicating that soldiers or guards played the game during less busy periods at the palace gates. Similar games have also been discovered on other ancient sculptures, suggesting that this game had broad appeal and was not just for royalty.

Ur was founded c. 3800 BC and was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia. The Royal Cemetery at Ur was discovered at an archaeological site in modern-day southern Iraq. The first excavations at Ur took place between 1922 and 1934. The cemetery at Ur incorporated over 2,000 burials. Amongst these burials were sixteen tombs identified as “royal” based on their size and the richness of grave goods as well as the existence of ritual artefacts. The Royal Game of Ur was discovered in one of the Royal Tombs of Ur by the famous British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s.

Facts about the Royal Game of Ur

  • A game board discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur
  • Earliest boards date to c. 2600–2400 BC
  • Played in the Middle East up to 300 AD
  • Played in India through the 1950s
  • Two Player Game
  • Playing time was about 30 minutes
  • Skills required include: strategy, tactics, counting and understanding of dice probabilities

Ur

Ur was an important Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. Although Ur was once a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Persian Gulf, the coastline has shifted, and the city is now well inland, on the south bank of the Euphrates. The city dates from 3,800 BC and the site is marked by the partially restored ruins of the Ziggurat of Ur, which contained the shrine of Nanna, excavated in the 1930s.

When Ur was founded, the Persian Gulf’s water level was two-and-a-half metres higher than it is today. Ur is thought to have had marshy surroundings and used canals for transportation. Archaeologists have discovered the evidence of an early occupation at Ur during 6500 to 3800 BC. These early archaeological levels were sealed off with a sterile deposit of soil that was interpreted by excavators of the 1920s as evidence for the Great Flood of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is now understood that the South Mesopotamian plain was exposed to regular floods from the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, with massive erosion from water which may have given rise to the Mesopotamian Great Flood stories.

Ur is likely the city of Ur Kasdim mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the birthplace of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), traditionally believed to have lived some time in the 2nd millennium BC. Ur is mentioned four times in the Torah or Old Testament.

Reflections on the Royal Game of Ur

  • A Game for a King discovered in a Royal Cemetery?
  • Would rulers be allowed to always win by their subordinates in a highly hierarchical power structure?
  • Would the ruler of four thousand years ago loose face if he lost in such a game?
  • Graffiti version of this game has been discovered on many ancient sculptures, indicating broad popularity. What is the most popular board game today?
  • Do we today play more or fewer games than in the past?

Explore

Royal Game of Ur also known as the Game of Twenty Squares

  • Title:               Royal Game of Ur also known as the Game of Twenty Squares
  • Created:         2600–2400 BC
  • Culture:          First Dynasty of Ur
  • Place:             Ur in current-day Iraq
  • Materials:       Wood, shell
  • Discovered:    1920’s
  • Dimensions:   H: 2.4 cm, W: 11 cm; L: 30.1 cm
  • Museum:        The British Museum

Explore the Collections of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

The Middle East Collection

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

The Britain, Europe and Prehistory Collection

The Asian Collection

The Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

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“A dog which is played with turns into a puppy.”
– Sumerian Proverbs

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Photo Credit: 1) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons;  Content: Content from Wikipedia articles on the above subjects is license

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