Egypt's 58 Holes, the Ancient Board Game Called Hounds and Jackals

Playing Chutes and Ladders 4,000 Years Ago

Full color photograph of an ancient Hounds and Jackals board game that is on display in a museum.

English: Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926 (26.7.1287a-k); Gift of Lord Carnarvon, 2012 (2012.508)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

The 4,000-year-old board game 58 Holes is also called Hounds and Jackals, the Monkey Race, the Shield Game, and the Palm Tree Game, all of which refer to the shape of the game board or the pattern of the peg holes in the face of the board. As you might guess, the game consists of a board with a track of fifty-eight holes (and a few grooves), in which players race a pair of pegs along the route. It is thought to have been invented in Egypt around 2200 B.C. It flourished during the Middle Kingdom, but died out in Egypt after that, around 1650 B.C. Around the end of the third millennium B.C., 58 Holes spread into Mesopotamia and maintained its popularity there until well into the first millennium B.C.

Playing 58 Holes

The ancient game 58 Holes most closely resembles the modern children's game known as "Snakes and Ladders" in Britain and "Chutes and Ladders" in the United States. In 58 Holes, each player is given five pegs. They begin at the starting point to move their pegs down the center of the board and then up their respective sides to the endpoints. The lines on the board are the "chutes" or "ladders" that allow the player to quickly advance or to just as quickly fall behind.

Ancient boards are generally rectangular to oval and sometimes shield or violin-shaped. The two players throw dice, sticks, or knucklebones to determine the number of places they can move, marked on the game board by elongated pegs or pins.

The name Hounds and Jackals comes from the decorative shapes of the playing pins found at Egyptian archaeological sites. Rather like Monopoly tokens, one player's peg head would be in shape of a dog, the other in that of a jackal. Other forms discovered by archaeologists include pins shaped liked monkeys and bulls. The pegs that been retrieved from archaeological sites were made of bronze, gold, silver, or ivory. It is quite likely that many more existed, but were made of perishable materials such as reeds or wood.

Cultural Transmission

Versions of Hounds and Jackals spread into the near east shortly after its invention, including Palestine, Assyria, Anatolia, Babylonia, and Persia. Archaeological boards were found in the ruins of Assyrian merchant colonies in Central Anatolia dating as early as the 19th and 18th centuries B.C. These are thought to have been brought by Assyrian merchants, who also brought writing and cylinder seals from Mesopotamia into Anatolia. One route along which the boards, writing, and seals might have traveled is the overland route that would later become the Royal Road of the Achaemenids. Maritime connections also facilitated international trade.

There is strong evidence that 58 Holes was traded throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. With such widespread distribution, it's normal that a considerable amount of local variation would exist. Different cultures, some of which were enemies of the Egyptians at the time, adapted and created new imagery for the game. Certainly, other artifact types are adapted and changed for use in local communities. The 58 Holes gameboards, however, seem to have maintained their general shapes, styles, rules, and iconography — no matter where they were played.

This is somewhat surprising, because other games, such as chess, were widely and freely adapted by the cultures that adopted them. The consistency of form and iconography in 58 Holes may be a result of the complexity of the board. Chess, for example, has a simple board of 64 squares, with the movement of the pieces dependent on largely unwritten (at the time) rules. Gameplay for 58 Holes depends strictly on the board layout.

Trading Games

The discussion of cultural transmission of game boards, in general, is currently of considerable scholarly research. The recovery of game boards with two different sides — one a local game and one from another country — suggest that the boards were used as a social facilitator to enable friendly transactions with strangers in new places.

At least 68 gameboards of 58 Holes have been found archaeologically, including examples from Iraq (Ur, Uruk, Sippar, Nippur, Nineveh, Ashur, Babylon, Nuzi), Syria (Ras el-Ain, Tell Ajlun, Khafaje), Iran (Tappeh Sialk, Susa, Luristan), Israel (Tel Beth Shean, Megiddo, Gezer), Turkey (Boghazkoy, Kultepe, Karalhuyuk, Acemhuyuk), and Egypt (Buhen, Thebes, El-Lahun, Sedment).


Crist, Walter. "Board Games in Antiquity." Anne Vaturi, Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, August 21, 2014.

Crist, Walter. "Facilitating Interaction: Board Games as Social Lubricants in the Ancient Near East." Alex de Voogt, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Wiley Online Library, April 25, 2016.

De Voogt, Alex. "Cultural transmission in the ancient Near East: twenty squares and fifty-eight holes." Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, Jelmer W.Eerkens, Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 40, Issue 4, ScienceDirect, April 2013.

Dunn-Vaturi, Anne-E. "'The Monkey Race' — Remarks on Board Games Accessories." Board Games Studies 3, 2000.

Romain, Pascal. "Les représentations des jeux de pions dans le Proche-Orient ancien et leur signification." Board Game Studies 3, 2000.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Egypt's 58 Holes, the Ancient Board Game Called Hounds and Jackals." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Egypt's 58 Holes, the Ancient Board Game Called Hounds and Jackals. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Egypt's 58 Holes, the Ancient Board Game Called Hounds and Jackals." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).