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The Mysterious Ancient Greek Game Made of Bones

Ancient Greek game astragaloi made of bones
Archaeologists Discover Mysterious Ancient Greek Game Made of Bones. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

An Ancient Greek divination game from around 2,300 years ago, known as ‘astragaloi’ (meaning ‘ankles’) and made from bones, has recently been discovered by archeologists in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park located in the Judean Foothills—also known as the Shephelah—in Israel.

The practice of astragalomancy—divination by throwing astragaloi—was a game of chance or divination played in antiquity by the Greeks and Romans with some examples from the Etruscans and Near Eastern civilizations.

In Ancient Greece, Astragalomancy was performed through the rolling of astragaloi and subsequent consultation of “dice oracles.”

Either five astragaloi (plural) were rolled at once or, otherwise, one astragalos (single) was rolled five consecutive times in order to obtain an oracle.

The gaming pieces were comprised of ankle or hock bones (hence the name of the game) from animals such as goats or sheep although imitations have previously been found in bronze or wood.

The discovery is significant in that it reveals previously unknown information about our present and possibly even our future.

Sculpture of a roman girl playing astragaloi
Sculpture of a Roman girl playing astragaloi. credit: MatthiasKabel/Wikimedia Commons

Discovered bones have inscriptions of ancient Greek gods

A collection of astragaloi from the Hellenistic period during excavations was found by researchers from the University of Haifa—under the direction of Dr. Ian Stern—during excavations found in the ancient city of Maresha in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park.

The pieces contain inscriptions of Greek gods and goddesses, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty ; Eros, the god of love; and Hermes, the herald of the gods and  the guide of souls towards the afterlife (Psychopomp).

Other pieces also included Hera, the goddess of marriage, women, and family, and the protector of women in childbirth while Nike, the winged goddess of victory is also found on another game piece. Some pieces also contain inscriptions onto which “Robber,” “Stop,” and “You are burnt” are engraved.

Dr. Lee Perry-Gal, an Israel Antiquities Authority zooarchaeologist and research fellow at the University of Haifa said that “the large assemblage of astragaloi from Maresha is unique in quantity and quality, as well as in the many inscriptions.”

“The assemblage reveals that, as today, people in distress sought external help in divination and spells and in the world beyond,” she added. “With the help of magic, women and men struggled with an uncertain environment of health, childbirth, and death, and aimed to protect themselves.”

Eli Eskosido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, noted that “this fascinating research sheds light on the life and customs in the ancient world and reminds us that people are regular all over the world.”

“They dream and hope, and notwithstanding the harshness of daily life, they find time for playing and leisure,” he added.

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