Ancient Game of Skittles?

c. 3200 BC

Gallery 4, Petrie Room


Focus on the Object

Noting that the three blocks of dark marble could be constructed as an arch, the excavator Flinders Petrie deduced that this was a miniature game, the object of which was to hit the pointed 'skittles' (nine in all, made of red and white breccia and coloured limestone) by bowling the 'marbles' (four, made of diorite) through the archway. The gap in the archway is roughly 2.6 cm wide and the largest 'marble' measures 1.4 cm, so at a set distance this would require some bowling skill.


The Snake Game

Exhibited next to the 'skittles' is a miniature limestone version of the circular board that was used to play the 'Snake Game', one of the earliest known 'race' games. It was played with marbles and lion-shaped gaming pieces which the players probably moved around the snake according to 'throws' of marked sticks or slips.

No such pieces were found with this stone disc, however -- it had been used as the lid of a pot in grave Q19 in the prehistoric cemetery at Ballas, north of Naqada. Nonetheless, its size may indicate that, like the 'skittles', it was intended as a portable game to entertain the deceased in the next life. It may also have been thought to have magical properties -- games of chance came to have a special significance in Egyptian beliefs about the Underworld, where the dead person needed to win his or her way through to eternal life.

Men playing the 'Snake game', as depicted in the tomb of Rashepses at Saqqara (about 2400BC). The board is shown upright for visual clarity. In reality it would have been set horizontally, probably on a stand. The only pieces in play seem to be marbles - the lions and lionesses known to be part of the 'Snake game' set are not shown here.

The projecting tab is a feature known from other depictions of the game, but its purpose is unknown. It may have been used as a grip, to shake the board, or as a parking-place for pieces not in play.