Roman Game Boards from Abu Sha'ar (Red Sea Coast, Egypt)

Article excerpt


Between 1987 and 1993 teams under the aegis of the University of Delaware conducted surveys and excavations at and in the environs of Abu Sha'ar on Egypt's Red Sea coast, about 20 km north of the centre of Hurghada (Figure 1). Five seasons of fieldwork have examined the Roman military and Christian ecclesiastical installations at Abu Sha'ar itself (27[degrees] 22.13' N/33[degrees] 40.97' E) and an associated extramural baths and trash dump. Fieldwork was also undertaken at an artesian well c. 1 km west of the fort and at a small hydreuma approximately 5.5 km west of the fort near Bir Abu Sha'ar el-Qibli (Sidebotham, Riley, Hamroush & Barakat 1989; Sidebotham 1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1994a, 1994b, 1999).


Dating evidence indicates the foundation or re-foundation of the main fort in 309-310 AD. Large fragments of at least one Latin inscription from the main (west) gate record this event during the joint reigns of the emperors Constantine I, Licinius I, Galerius and Maximinus II when Aurelius Maximinus was dux Aegypti Thebaidos utrarumque Libyarum. The text documents that the Ala Nova Maximiana, a mounted unit (probably dromedary rather than cavalry) was stationed here. The size of the fort and its barracks suggests that the ala could not have been much larger than about 200 men. The inscription further emphasises that the fort was part of the limes (frontier/administrative zone) at that time (Isaac 1992: 408-410) and that it had some relationship with mercatores (merchants) (Bagnall & Sheridan 1994a: 159-163), probably engaged in trade between the Nile and other points in the Red Sea via the Abu Sha'ar fort. The fort at Abu Sha'ar was undoubtedly part of a major reorganisation of the entire eastern Roman frontier conducted in the Tetrarchic and Constantinian period (284-337 AD) (van Berchem 1952: passim and 59-71 for Egypt; Jones 1964: 52-60, 97-101; Southern & Dixon 1996: 15-36). A trans-desert route approximately 181 km long and dotted with way-stations linked the fort at Abu Sha'ar and the nearby hydreuma with Kainopolis on the Nile (Sidebotham, Zitterkopf & Riley 1991). The parent unit of the Abu Sha'ar garrison was stationed at the main camp at Luxor (Bagnall & Sheridan 1994a: 159-163; cf. El-Saghir, Golvin, Redde, Hegazy & Wagner 1986: 20-21, 122).

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Roman army abandoned the fort sometime in the late fourth century. Perhaps this was part of another major reorganisation of the Roman frontier during the reigns of Valentinian I and Valens (364-378 AD), or Theodosius I (379-395 AD) (Jones 1964: 148-149, 159-160; Southern & Dixon 1996: 40-46). Thereafter, Christians moved in and converted the installation into a monastery complete with a church (the former principia) and, apparently, a martyrium. Many of the barracks and other sections of the fort remained abandoned during this later phase with only a small area of the interior dedicated to Christian religious purposes. Main access in this religious phase was via the north gate; the west gate having fallen out of use. The Christians seem to have occupied the fort until sometime in the sixth, and possibly into the seventh, century. Thereafter, it was abandoned except for occasional transient visitors.

The game boards

Excavations at the site of this fort have produced twenty game-boards cut in stone, which belong to the period of Roman occupation and form the subject of this paper (Figures 3-9). The boards are made of the same stone as was used in the construction of the towers and gates of the fort--a porous local gypsum prone to rapid decay due to the extremes of desert temperatures. The stone was found in varied states of decay from recrystallisation to a sugaring of the surface, and a desalination process followed by consolidation has been necessary to prevent complete disintegration. The boards were made from building stone cut into regular rectangular blocks, with a field of play carved on one or more surfaces. …