Stone spheres in Greek deposits: an ancestor of the board game

But what could these near-perfect stone spheres, found in vast numbers at various ancient sites in the Aegean and Mediterranean, be used for? During the 20th century, archaeologists discovered them on Crete, Cyprus, Santorini, and other Greek islands, both inside buildings and in open spaces. Smaller than golf balls, these strange balls made from different types of stone have been the subject of much speculation. As for how they might be used in the Bronze Age, some researchers sometimes define them as throwing balls, sling stones, parts of a counting system, or even game pawns.

746 spheres in Akrotiri alone

Thanks to work that combines classical statistical analysis and machine learning, a team from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom claims to have finally put an end to the suspense: these spheres would, in fact, be the pieces of one of the humanity’s oldest society games, along with the mehen (also known as the Snake Game), senet or the Game of Dogs and Jackals, all Egyptian, or the Royal Game of Ur (or Game of Twenty Squares), found in a royal tomb in the Mesopotamian city.

Several dozen stones found at Akrotiri. Credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol

The researchers relied on the largest set of stone spheres assembled to date, found only in the city of Akrotiri Thera, on the Greek island of Santorini. Christianne Fernée and Konstantinos Trimmis, both belonging to the Anthropology and Archeology department of the British university, thus examined the characteristics of 746 stones, of size, materials and therefore of different colours.

only two sizes

“We used artificial intelligence to identify groups in the collections of spheres based on their size, i.e. diameter and weight. This allowed them to be separated into two groups: a large group of small spheres and a small group of large spheres.”explains to Science and Future Christianne Fernee. Combined with traditional analyses, artificial intelligence suggested that the stones may have been deliberately selected or worked to match the two general size groups. “Some seem to have been sculpted in such a way that they become spherical and enter certain dimensions”says the researcher. If the smaller balls were found everywhere on the site, the larger balls were discovered deposited in artificial cavities under the buildings of the last phase of occupation.

    Credit: University of Bristol

A slab with notches for the spheres, also called kernos, found in the square of the House of Banks in Akrotiri, on the island of Santorini. The way the balls are placed is an interpretation. Credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol

The AI ​​also supported the theory that the spheres did serve as game pawns, “because if they had been used as part of a weighing or counting system, which has hitherto been among the advanced theories still in dispute, one would have expected them to fall into several other groups.”continues Christianne Fernée. For his part, Konstantinos Trimmis believes that “The social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, reinforces the idea that they were part of a game that was played for social interaction. This gives a new perspective on social interaction in the Aegean Bronze Age region”.

Who says pawns says boards

The small spherical stone objects could have been reproduced on stone slabs with cut marks and other depressions, which have just been discovered throughout the eastern Mediterranean. “These types of slabs have been found in Crete, the Levant, Cyprus, the island of Naxos and even Santorini”write the duet “The record of the slabs, also known as kernoi at Akrotiri, showed that the function of the object was more important than its materiality.” In fact, archaeologists have not been able to find a pattern in either the type of stone used, or its color, or even its general shape. “It seems that a relatively flat slab that can be drilled or engraved with domes did the trick”Christianne Fernée takes over. “The size of the domes is not the same from slab to slab, and the only real feature is the presence of one large mark and several smaller ones – probably 21 in all – arranged in a spiral or oval.”

    Credit: University of Bristol

Various slabs found throughout the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean world. Credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol.

However, the reason why so many spheres were discovered at Akrotiri and nowhere else is not clear. One of the hypotheses advanced is that it could be cultural: only the inhabitants of Akrotiri would have used lithic spheres to play when, in other places, the small pawns would have been made with seeds, legumes or balls of manure, organic remains not resistant to corrosion. ravages of time. Another possibility he suggested to explain this absence of spheres in large numbers elsewhere: the existence of a research bias that would have made the stones go unnoticed during the excavation process.

The next stage of the research will be to apply a similar methodology to the slabs, in particular to try to associate them with the spheres. The team also hopes to use artificial intelligence techniques to determine how the game was actually played. Because the real mystery remains: what were the rules?

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