Mancala at the Pyramids of Meroe

By de Voogt, Alex | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Mancala at the Pyramids of Meroe


de Voogt, Alex, Antiquity


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Introduction

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.

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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.

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