It’s currently Passover and Easter is coming up and because of that one thing is certain: Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments is going to be all over your TV this weekend. It has little to do with the story of Easter, but it frequently coincides with Passover—which is the case this year—and the movie actually tells the story of that holiday, which celebrates the story of the liberation of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The cinematic retelling of the Biblical story of Moses from 1956 is a work of massive scale and is one of the more memorable films involving ancient Egyptian characters and motifs. This post will not tackle the monumental task of critiquing the movie’s Egyptian historical references (or the problems of reconciling the Biblical narrative with the archaeological record). I will, instead, focus on one particular scene, in which two of the major characters play an ancient Egyptian board game, “Hounds and Jackals,” which is based on actual artifacts.
In the movie, Pharaoh Sethi and Princess Nefretiri are playing the game in the royal palace. Sethi’s adviser interrupts the game with complaints against Moses, and Sethi dismisses his concerns. Nefretiri is due to marry either Rameses or Moses and become Queen of Egypt. She prefers Moses, but Rameses is the elder brother (and the only biological son of Sethi), so Sethi prefers her to marry Rameses. In the end, Nefretiri wins the game, and she implies that she won by accident, and had been letting Sethi win in order to gain favor for Moses.
In the movie, they call the pieces “hounds” and “jackals,” and the game has commonly been known as known as “Hounds and Jackals” in some of the archaeological literature, or as the game of 58 holes in more scholarly parlance. We, unfortunately, do not know what the ancient name for this game was, as there are no undisputed pictorial scenes or textual evidence including this game. The board takes the form of two parallel rows of eleven holes, which are then surrounded by an arc of 36-38 holes. Sometimes there is an extra group of holes, called a “labyrinth,” surrounding a larger hole, which seems to be the goal point of the game. The board itself can vary widely in shape, from a simple oval to a violin shape, and some that are in the shape of hippopotami or frogs. Accompanying the board are a series of pegs, usually with the heads of hounds and jackals. It is assumed that one player used the hound pegs, while the other used the jackal pegs. We do not know whether dice or other kinds of randomization devices were used in the game, even though casting sticks, which were definitely used for other games such as senet, are used in the film.
The board that Seti and Nefertiri are playing on is modeled after a specific artifact, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Made out of ivory, it was found by Howard Carter, the man who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and it has a distinctive palm tree decoration in the center. No other known historical example of this game has, but which is reproduced in the film’s version. There is also a notch at the top of the film’s reproduction that also exists in the Met’s game, but this is because an element has broken off from the board, rather than it being the intended shape. The board in the movie is a super-sized version of this board, as the board itself as well as the pegs are enlarged, probably to be more easily visible onscreen.
The origins of this game are presently somewhat unclear. The earliest example that we know of comes from Eleventh Dynasty ( roughly 2134-1991 BCE) Egypt. There are multiple other examples of this game from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Anatolia (modern Turkey) that appear very shortly after this first game in Egypt. It is almost suspicious that these games appear in those places so rapidly, particularly those in central Anatolia, which did not have direct trade connections with Egypt. The boards that were used for 58 holes have been found in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and maybe even Azerbaijan.
Further compounding this confusion is the fact that this game seems to have had a longer period of popularity in Mesopotamia than it did in Egypt. After the Middle Kingdom, the game became less popular in Egypt, perhaps as a new game, the game of twenty squares, increased in popularity during that time. After the New Kingdom, Hounds and Jackals is completely absent from Egypt, which we can see from a lack of game boards of this type from tombs and other sites from these later periods. Despite this, 58 holes remained a popular game in Mesopotamia, particularly in Assyria. There are a few games of this type with the name of Esarhaddon, ruler of the Assyrian empire from 681- 669 BCE, nearly 600 years after the last known example from Egypt.
Just as we don’t know the ancient name of this game, we similarly don’t know how it was played, what the goal of the game was, whether the pegs were moved in a predetermined pattern (as in chess), or if they were moved according to the result of randomization devices such as casting sticks or dice. Inferences have been made about how the game might have been played, but it is based solely on interpretations on how one would play a game with this board configuration and sets of pegs. There are no texts or pictorial evidence telling us how it was played. Senet is an Egyptian game for which there are texts and some playing scenes in art that give a partial view of the way that game was played, but nothing like this exists for 58 holes.
Interestingly, there may be evidence that this game spread even further afield. Recent survey work in the region around Baku, Azerbaijan have produced a series of patterns of holes in bedrock and portable flat stones that mirror the pattern seen in 58 holes boards. They display the central parallel lines, the arch of holes around it, and even some of the connecting lines which are seen on some of the games from Egypt and Mesopotamia. The resemblance is striking and unlikely to be coincidental. Even though this part of Azerbaijan is roughly 500 miles from Mesopotamia, there is evidence for early contact between the two regions, particularly in western Azerbaijan. At this point in time, however, more archaeological work needs to be done to understand the dating of this game in Azerbaijan. Doing so will be crucial to understanding the social processes that brought this board game across such a great distance.
It is always exciting to see a relatively faithful reproduction of an ancient artifact in popular culture, and also to see it used in a fairly reasonable way. If you’re going to be watching The Ten Commandments this weekend, keep an eye out for this scene and drop some knowledge on your friends and family members!