58 Holes: Ancient Egyptian Board Game of Hounds and Jackals

Playing Snakes and Ladders 4,000 Years Ago

58 Holes - The Palm Tree Game
58 Holes - The Palm Tree Game. Schematic of a Palm Tree Game found in Thebes and currently in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Luna92

The 4,000-year-old board game of 58 Holes is also called Hounds and Jackals, the Monkey Race, the Shield Game or 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 about 2200 BCE, and flourished during the Middle Kingdom but died out in Egypt after that, about 1650 BCE. About the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, 58 Holes spread into Mesopotamia and maintained its popularity there until well into the first millennium BCE.

Playing 58 Holes

Fifty-eight Holes most closely resembles the modern children's game known as "Snakes and Ladders" in Britain and "Chutes and Ladders" in the United States. Each player is given five pegs, and they begin at the starting point (marked in red on the schematic) and move their pegs down the center of the board and then up their respective sides to the endpoints (marked in green). The yellow lines in the schematic are the "chutes" or "ladders" allowing the player to quickly advance or 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, which are marked in the game by elongated pegs or pins.

The "Hounds and Jackals" name comes from decorative shapes of the heads of playing pins found in Egyptian 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 known archaeologically include monkeys and bulls. The pegs which have been retrieved from archaeological sites were made of bronze, gold, silver, or ivory, and it is quite likely that many more existed but were of perishable reeds or wood.

Cultural Transmission of 58 Holes

A version of Hounds and Jackals spread into the near east shortly after its invention, including Palestine, Assyria, Anatolia, Babylonia, and Persia. Archaeological boards have been found in the ruins of Old Assyrian merchant colonies in Central Anatolia as early as the 19th-18th centuries BCE. 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 which would later become the Royal Road of the Achaemenids. Maritime connections would also have facilitated international trade.

There is strong evidence (de Voogt, Dunn-Vaturi and Eerkens 2013) that the 58 Holes game was traded throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. With such a widespread distribution, it would be expected that a considerable amount of local variation would exist, that the different cultures, some of which were enemies of the Egyptians at the time, would adapt and create new imagery for the game. Certainly, other artifact types are adapted and changed for use in local communities. The 58 Holes gameboards, like the 20 Squares game boards, 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 may be a result of the complexity of the board: chess, for example, has a simple board of sixty-four squares, with the movement of the pieces dependent on largely unwritten (at the time) rules, while gameplay for both 58 Holes and 20 Squares 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 to Crist and colleagues (2015) 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 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).

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