Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have discovered that mysterious stone spheres found at various ancient settlements across the Aegean could be playing pieces from an ancient board game.
There has been quite a lot of speculation around these spheres found at ancient sites across Santorini, Crete, Cyprus, and other Greek islands with theories suggesting that they could have been used as ancient sling stones, tossing balls, or counters / pawns. Alternatively, they could have been used for counting or record-keeping purposes.
Previous research conducted by the same team of archaeologists from the University of Bristol indicated that there was variability in sphere size within specific clusters and collections of spheres. The team expressed the need to explore potential patterning within sphere concentrations in future studies in order to attain further insight into potential usage.
Key findings in the Aegean
The new study, which was published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports contains reports by Dr. Christianne Fernée and Dr. Konstantinos Trimmis from the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. The two researchers examined common features in a total of seven hundred stones that are believed to be around 3,600 to 4,500 years old. These were found at the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.
The stones, which are smaller than golf balls, consist of various colors and are made from a variety of materials. The stones were categorized into two groups of large and small stones. In addition, in Akrotiri and in other settlements across the Aegean, there are stone slabs with shallow cup marks where the spheres could have been placed.
Aegean spheres could be part of an ancient board game
According to Ferneé, “The most important finding of the study is that the speres fit two major clusters (one of smaller and one of larger stones). This supports the hypothesis that they were used as counters for a board game with the spheres most possibly have been collected to fit these clusters rather than a counting system for which you would expect more groupings.”
If it is proven that these mysterious spheres found in the Aegean are in fact part of an ancient board game, they will be one of the earliest examples of such artifacts—along with similar examples from the Levant and Egypt, such as the Egyptian Mehen and Senet.
Trimmis added that “the social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, further supports the idea of the spheres being part of a game that was played for social interaction.”
“This gives…new insight into…social interaction in the Bronze Age Aegean,” Trimmis concluded.
In order for analysis to be concluded, the cup marks must be examined to determine whether there is a potential association between the spheres and the slabs. The team hopes to use state of the art artificial intelligence techniques to determine how the game was actually played.