Hounds and Jackals, Bronze Age Board Game

I always imagined that board games were a medieval invention. I thought that chess and checkers started the trend, setting it off on a course that runs clear through Monopoly and on to Catan. Playing cards have a distinctly medieval flare, with kings, queens, jokers… and jacks. (Though apparently they were first invented in medieval China, and only later came to resemble what we think of today as a standard card deck.) So it makes sense that board games would date from about the same time.

But they’re a whole lot older. Positively ancient. An article I stumbled across on LiveScience details an archaeological find that includes the remnants of a board game, dating to the second millennium B.C. Who would have thought people were playing board games 4,000 years ago? This one was found in a rock shelter in Azerbaijan. The board is a series of holes that were carved into the floor of the shelter, and was played by nomadic herders. Maybe when the rain forced them inside? Or at night, by firelight?

The game is called 58 holes. It looks a bit like a cribbage board, with two sets of 29 holes, and was played widely all over ancient Egypt for thousands of years. It’s also been more poetically named Hounds and Jackals after a version of the game that was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhat IV.

Pharaoh or sheep herder, it didn’t matter. Both still played the same game. 

Hounds and Jackals board, found at Thebes, 13th Dynasty

Others say the game is more similar to backgammon than cribbage, but no one truly knows. The rules of the game are lost along with its official name, if it ever had one. Perhaps both pharaoh and herder had different rules as well, though I like to think they didn’t… and that forms part of the appeal of board games. 

Perhaps its’s not so surprising that board games are ancient. And no, I’m not thinking about what people did before cell phones and the internet, or even the printed book. I’m instead reminded of how often I played games when I traveled, and how much I enjoyed them with people with whom I did not share a common language, people who I never could never have interacted with all that much or all that deeply without the help of a common game. Connect 4 was super popular in Thailand. Backgammon in Jamaica. Chess in India. Board games each have a language all their own. All anyone needs to do is learn one set of rules. 

You can still buy 58 Holes today, though it’s sold under the more appealing name of Hounds and Jackals. I wonder if it comes with a set of rules.

Cambridge University Library, 600 Years Old

Cambridge University Library turns 600 years old this year, apparently making it older than both the British Library and the Vatican Library. The library started in 1416 as collections of manuscripts in wooden chests, though the chests themselves were rather grand. To mark its passage into its seventh century, the library is putting on an exhibition. The library highlights writing examples that capture 4,000 years of human thought and show how the written word has played a pivotal role in shaping society. They even somehow include Twitter.

From the University of Cambridge website:

The new exhibition puts on display Newton’s own annotated copy of Principia Mathematica, Darwin’s papers on evolution, 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones, a cuneiform tablet from 2,000BC, and the earliest reliable text for 20 of Shakespeare’s plays.


If like me, you won’t be able to make it anywhere near Cambridge in the foreseeable future, you can read about the exhibition on their website, and peruse it in a great online version of the exhibition.

There’s also a video:

I’ve often thought of buying a beat up, letterpress printing press and producing hand-crafted, limited edition books. The idea of scribbling on old bone fragments or clay tablets never occurred to me before… need to give that one some thought.

My Place on the Web

Hello there!

I’m Alex Fosse. I write stories, science fiction and fantasy–almost always with creatures in them. I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years, have a hard drive full of fiction in various states of completion. It’s time for that to change. I’ll be finishing some of these stories, and working on new ones in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Then letting these stories escape, sending them out into the wild to see if they can fend for themselves. First up, I’ll be releasing a couple of novellas.

I’m also an avid reader. I hear about writers who are not, but so far have not met this strange beast. Some of my favorite authors include Philip Pullman, Ursula K. LeGuin, China Miéville, and Robin Hobb.

Thanks for stopping by my corner of the web.