Would you like to play one of the oldest board games in the world – one played by Queen Nefertari and King Tutankhamun, who was buried with five game boxes? Would you still be interested in playing if you knew it became known as the Game of Death because it was believed the souls of the dead had to win games against the living in order to pass on to the afterlife? Then head on over to San Jose – yes, the one in California – to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, where an archeologist discovered an uncatalogued wooden senet board that may be one of the first examples of when the fun game of chance became the spooky Game of Death. Your move.
“By the New Kingdom and perhaps earlier, senet gains religious importance as evidenced by its inclusion in Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, where the deceased plays senet against an invisible opponent. The game itself is a reflection of the ba passing through the duat, and is described in such terms in the Great Games Text, connecting the spaces of the individual playing squares to different stages along the journey. The word senet in Egyptian means ‘passing,’ and may refer either to the game’s religious connotation of the ba passing through the duat or to the mechanics of gameplay, where playing pieces passed each other on the board.”
Walter Crist, an archaeologist at Maastricht University, writes about the board in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. (The ‘ba’ her refers to is the soul and ‘duat’ is the realm of the dead) The board and nine playing pieces were acquired by the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in 1947 from Spink and Son in London, which obtained it from the collection of Lord William-Tyssen Amherst, First Baron of Hackney, a well-known collector of Egyptian antiquities and cuneiform tablets and a benefactor of Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tut. The baron died in 1906 and the tomb wasn’t discovered until 1922, so it’s not one of Tut’s. In fact, that’s the extent of what’s known about its history.
“It may be one of the first times that this aspect of the journey through the afterlife is visually rendered on the board.”
Crist bases this assessment on the drawings etched into the game board. (Pictures of the game can be seen here.) Senet was played by two people who placed their five game pieces on a 30-square, 3-by-10 grid. Moves were determined by a throwing a precursor to dice and pieces moved up and down the rows cribbage-style. While the game has been depicted in many tomb paintings, not much else was written down about rules. What is known is that the decorations in the last five squares were hieroglyphics, animals or people and were key to dating the boards. Also, the Rosicrucian game is designed like a small table and the only one of this design ever found, indicating it’s older than later models like Tut’s which were boxes for holding the game pieces and dice.
“In addition, the markings in the final five spaces were simple during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but beginning in the New Kingdom the use of more elaborate drawings and hieroglyphic inscriptions appear in these squares. This elaboration coincides with the increased religious significance of the game during the New Kingdom.”
Because it’s a modified tabular slab and has religious markings, Crist feels comfortable identifying this as the earliest known example of a Board Game of Death. Since the decorations in the last squares are not yet fully religious, Crist puts the age of the Rosicrucian board at about 3500 years, between the reigns of Ahmose I and Thutmose II. Future radiocarbon dating may give a more accurate timeframe.
While playing the Board Game of Death might sound exciting, would you really want to win if you knew it kept a soul from moving on to the afterlife?