Egypt's 58 Holes, the Ancient Board Game Called Hounds and Jackals


by Bassem Lotfey Mansour

Hounds and Jackals is an Egyptian game, which came into existence in the Middle Kingdom, around the 9th  Dynasty, Archaeologists found this game in the tomb of an official named Reniseneb, circa 2135 – 1986 BCE. It is a racing game, in the same category as Senet, Aseb, and the Royal Game of Ur.

The game was originally discovered by William Mathew Flinders Petrie and published by him in 1890. Since then over 40 examples of the game have been found in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iran and around the Levant and Mediterranean.

The original name of the game is unknown. Petrie called The Game of 58 Holes, since the game board that he found contained two sets of 29 holes. later, when Howard Carter discovered the fanciest known copy of the game, he called it The Game of Hounds and Jackals, since the playing pieces had heads of dogs and jackals on them. A third, least common, common name for the game was Shen for the Egyptian hieroglyph which was written on some of the examples, around the big hole at the top of the game.

The original rules for Hounds and Jackals are unknown, Around the end of the third millennium B.C., 58 Holes spread into Mesopotamia and maintained its popularity there until well into the first millennium B.C.

Playing 58 Holes
The ancient game 58 Holes most closely resembles the modern children's game known as "Snakes and Ladders" in Britain and "Chutes and Ladders" in the United States. In 58 Holes, each player is given five pegs. They begin at the starting point to move their pegs down the center of the board and then up their respective sides to the endpoints. The lines on the board are the "chutes" or "ladders" that allow the player to quickly advance or to just as quickly fall behind.

Ancient boards are generally rectangular to oval and sometimes shield or violin -shaped. The two players throw dice, sticks, or knucklebones to determine the number of places they can move, marked on the game board by elongated pegs or pins.

The name Hounds and Jackals comes from the decorative shapes of the playing pins found at Egyptian archaeological sites. Rather like Monopoly tokens, one player's peg head would be in shape of a dog, the other in that of a jackal. Other forms discovered by archaeologists include pins shaped liked monkeys and bulls. The pegs that been retrieved from archaeological sites were made of bronze, gold, silver, or ivory. It is quite likely that manymore existed, but were made of perishable materials such as reeds or wood.

Why Is This Game Important?
The game of Hounds and Jackals was important to Egyptians who lived during the Middle Kingdom (approximately 4,000 years ago). Egyptologists know this because they have found many examples of these game boards at Middle Kingdom archaeological sites. This game is usually found in tombs, which might tell us that the game was not only played because it was fun, but also because it had a symbolic meaning.

The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife, which means existence after death. To have a good afterlife, a person who died would have to complete certain rituals to please the gods and enter the underworld. We know that some games represented a successful trip to the afterlife, so the game of Hounds and Jackals could have represented the journey to the afterworld, too. The player who reached the shen sign may have not only won the game, but also successfully completed the transition from this life to the next.

Got your game face on? Challenge your friends or family members to play your favorite board game. Leave a  comment and let us know what game you played.

Cultural Transmission
Versions of Hounds and Jackals spread into the near east shortly after its invention, including Palestine, Assyria, Anatolia, Babylonia, and Persia. Archaeological boards were found in the ruins of Assyrian merchant colonies in Central Anatolia dating as early as the 19th and 18th  centuries B.C. These are thought to have been brought by Assyrian merchants, who also brought writing and cylinder seals from Mesopotamia into Anatolia. One route along which the boards, writing, and seals might have traveled is the overland route that would later  become the Royal Road of the Achaemenids. Maritime connections also facilitated international trade.

There is strong evidence that 58 Holes was traded throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. With such widespread distribution, it's normal that a considerable amount of local variation would exist. Different cultures, some of which were enemies of the Egyptians at the time, adapted and created new imagery for the game. Certainly, other artifact types are adapted and changed for use in local communities. The 58 Holes gameboards, however, seem to have maintained their general shapes, styles, rules, and iconography - no matter where they were played.

This is somewhat surprising, because other games, such as chess, were widely and freely adapted by the cultures that adopted them. The consistency of form and iconography in 58 Holes may be a result of the complexity of the board. Chess, for example, has a simple board of 64 squares, with the movement of the pieces dependent on largely unwritten (at the time) rules. Gameplay for 58 Holes depends strictly on the board layout.

On Game Strategy:
Hounds and Jackals is mostly a game of chance and not strategy. However, some strategizing is possible.

The throwing sticks have uneven probability for different scores, as compared to a six sided cubical dice, which makes them more frustrating and exciting at the same time.

1. The most frequent dice score on throwing sticks is 2 (probability is 6/16).

2. The next most frequent dice scores are 1 and 3 (probability is 4/16).

3. The least frequent dice scores are 4 and 5 (probability is 1/16).

4. Due to this uneven probability of scoring it is advantageous to the player to keep gaps between their pieces and trap holes by either 1 or 3 holes. Gaps of 4 or 5 are even better. However, gaps of 2 are more dangerous since the probability of scoring a 2 is highest and therefore the piece can get easily fall into a trap and get moved back. The opposite applies if the trap hole will move the piece forward or it is a Nefer hole. Then the player should prefer a gap of 2 and not gap of 1 or 3 holes, and of course not a gap of 4 or 5 holes, which will give them even less of a chance on landing there.

Trading Games
1. The discussion of cultural transmission of game boards, in general, is currently of considerable scholarly research. The recovery of game boards with two different sides- one a local game and one from another country - suggest that the boards were used as a social facilitator to enable friendly transactions with strangers in new places.

2. At least 68 gameboards of 58 Holes have been found archa eologically, including examples from Iraq ( Ur Uruk, Sippar, Nippur, Nineveh, Ashur, Babylon, Nuzi), Syria (Ras el-Ain, Tell Ajlun, Khafaje), Iran (Tappeh Sialk, Susa, Luristan), Israel (Tel Beth Shean, Megiddo, Gezer), Turkey (Boghazkoy, Kultepe, Karalhuyuk, Acemhuyuk), and Egypt (Buhen, Thebes, El-Lahun, Sedment).




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