Mancala Players at Palmyra

Article excerpt



Palmyra is known as a former outpost of the Roman Empire, whose riches were accumulated when it prospered as a caravan city in the Syrian desert on the route from the Mediterranean to the Gulf (Rostovtzeff 1932). Its role as a trading centre was dependent on the Romans, who needed to maintain security in the desert to control their empire (Gawlikowski 1994: 32). When, at the end of the third century AD, Palmyra's queen Zenobia famously defied the Roman emperor in a quest for an independent state, he destroyed the city. Arabs occupied part of the city from the seventh century onwards, but the city never returned to its former glory.

While political influence on Palmyra was Roman, cultural influence was mostly Parthian (Seyrig 1950: 1; Browning 1979: 36). Culture found expression in art, architecture, textiles, jewellery, perfume and pottery and all have contributed to our understanding of daily life in Palmyra. This study concerns another aspect of culture--board games deduced from marked and modified stone (Figure 1). These show a preference for a mancala-type game also found in neighbouring regions.


On the track of mancala

Board games are known to follow trade routes both in antiquity and in modern times (de Voogt 1999). Gaming pieces and dice are the most common finds in the archaeological record since boards made of wood are rarely preserved. But although wood was often used for playing boards, there are also numerous examples of boards carved on stone, so-called 'graffiti games' (Schadler 1994, 1998; Mulvin & Sidebotham 2004; Bell & Roueche 2007). Their date of origin is difficult to determine and only the archaeological context can shed light on their history.

Roman and Greek board games, as opposed to Egyptian and Babylonian ones, are described in ancient written sources (Austin 1934, 1935). These include the Greek game of five lines, morris and backgammon types. But several games, including mancala, have no reference in the literature and their rules and playing practices are unknown. Research by Schadler (1998), Mulvin and Sidebotham (2004) and Bell and Roueche (2007) has uncovered mancala-type games in Roman territory. In Asia Minor, Schadler found the Greek game of five lines that underwent a transformation into something with a strong similarity to so-called mancala games.

Mancala games use rows of cup-shaped holes and a proportionate number of identical playing counters--commonly seeds, shells or stones--that are distributed one-by-one in consecutive holes. The board consists of two or more rows of holes. Each of the two players usually owns one row and the object of the game is to capture the majority of the counters.

The method by which this is achieved depends on a great variety of playing rules that are found all round the world. Modern mancala games are found in the Caribbean, parts of South America, all over Africa and most parts of Asia including the Middle East (Murray 1952; de Voogt 1997). Examples of Syrian mancala are found both in museum collections (de Voogt 1997: 19) and sold in stores from Damascus to the Palmyran tourist shops. As in most areas of the world, these games are made of wood and are sold without playing rules.

Mancala at ancient Palmyra

In Palmyra, two types of games resembling mancala survive as stone carvings. One, referred to here as Roman mancala, has a configuration of two rows of five holes. The other has two rows of seven holes or sometimes even more and is called Syrian mancala. The location of these games on the site as it stands uncovered by archaeological excavation, suggests two separate introductions. This expands the ideas of Schadler concerning the presence of mancala in Roman Asia Minor and adds the complication of different variations of mancala that have appeared in separate time periods.

In September 2009, a brief survey was conducted to map the presence of graffiti (board) games on the marble and stone surfaces of the excavated city. …