Mancala at the Pyramids of Meroe

By de Voogt, Alex | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Mancala at the Pyramids of Meroe

de Voogt, Alex, Antiquity



The term mancala refers to a group of games commonly played on a space marked out by two parallel rows of shallow depressions, between which two players move small stones, shells or seeds (Figure 1). Examples have been identified at Palmyra, where they were interpreted as boards for Roman games, with a modified version introduced by Arab or Ottoman players in later centuries (de Voogt 2010). Traces of mancala games, in the form of rows of scoops in the rock surface, have been found on Sai Island, located on the Nile in northern Sudan (Davies 1925; de Voogt, in press; Figure 2). The game is unfamiliar to local Nubians today and cannot be attributed to them; but the location near the Ottoman fortress (on Sai) and the presence of other games associated with the Middle East point to an Ottoman influence (Depaulis 2001). This paper reports new finds of mancala-like game boards discovered during an archaeological survey in 2011 near the pyramids of Meroe, a site much further up the Nile. Since the Ottoman occupation of Nubia never reached far beyond Sai Island, a different explanation for these game boards is required.

The necessary tasks for this type of research are to locate and record the markings, to identify them as game boards and then to attribute them to a particular culture. Identification of the hole-rows as game boards is assisted where there are other signs of game-playing. At Palmyra and Sai Island, for example, the presence of other graffiti games next to rows of holes strongly suggests that the latter were used for play. However, at Meroe, marks on the monuments are severely eroded, a factor that also limits a quantitative comparison with game boards found on other archaeological sites. The degree of erosion means that even hollow depressions marking the hole-rows can easily escape the notice of archaeologists.



The archaeological record shows that various groups of people had an impact on the cultural history of Sudan, any of whom could be responsible for introducing these games. Even the possibility of graffiti due to recent tourism needs to be taken into account. Since little is known of the history of mancala games in antiquity, and since that is limited to a Roman game that is probably unrelated (Schadler 1998; Mulvin & Sidebotham 2004; de Voogt 2010), the finds in Sudan can contribute not only to our understanding of the history of mancala and its distribution, but also to the cultural contacts that it implies.

Description of the discovery

The pyramids of Meroe are located c. 200km north-east of Khartoum near the present-day town of Shendi. They are part of an extensive necropolis of the Napato-Meroitic kingdom that dates to a period from approximately 700 BC to AD 400. This kingdom extended up to the modern Egyptian border in the north and to Sudan's capital city, Khartoum, in the south. There are at least 200 pyramids in the royal necropolis, which is divided into North, South and West cemeteries. Mentioned in Roman and Egyptian records, the site was rediscovered in 1821 by the French explorer Frederic Cailliaud and published in 1823. Excavations were continued in the first half of the twentieth century by the American archaeologist George Reisner (Chapman & Dunham 1952) and later by the German architect Fritz Hinkel (Hinkel 1986) who also restored and rebuilt a number of the pyramids and accompanying chapels.

The long sequence of archaeological investigation at the site has included descriptions of the extensive markings. Hinkel recorded each block of stone of each pyramid in meticulous detail, including the graffiti. Surprisingly, however, his records show only texts and figurative art and do not make mention of the rows of holes (Hinkel & Yellin, forthcoming).

The earliest record of mancala-type marks on these pyramids is found in a photograph taken during Professor Breasted's expedition in 1906.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Mancala at the Pyramids of Meroe


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?