Stone balls at Greek sites: an ancestor of the board game

But what could these almost perfect stone spheres, found in large numbers at various ancient sites in the Aegean and Mediterranean, be used for? In the 20th century, archaeologists discovered them on Crete, Cyprus, Santorini and other Greek islands, both in buildings and in open spaces. These strange balls, smaller than golf balls and made of different types of stones, have been the subject of much speculation In relation to their use in the Bronze Age, some researchers sometimes define them as throwing balls, sling stones, parts of a counting system, or even pawns.

746 spheres in Akrotiri alone

Thanks to work combining classical statistical analysis and machine learning, a team from the University of Bristol in the UK claim to have finally put an end to the suspense: these spheres would actually be the pieces of one of humanity’s oldest games, alongside the mehen (also known as snake game), Senet or the game of dogs and jackals, all Egyptian, or the royal game of Ur (or the game of twenty squares), found in a royal tomb in the Mesopotamian city.

Several dozen stones found in Akrotiri. Photo credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol

Researchers drew on the largest collection of stone spheres to date found in the town of Akrotiri Thera on the Greek island of Santorini alone. Christianne Fernée and Konstantinos Trimmis, both members of the British University’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, therefore studied the properties of 746 stones, size, material and therefore different colours.

Only two sizes

“We used artificial intelligence to identify clusters in the ball collections based on their size – i.e. diameter and weight. This allowed them to be divided into two groups: a large group of small spheres and a small group of large spheres.”declares to science and future Christiane Ferne. Combined with traditional analyses, the artificial intelligence suggested that the stones may have been deliberately chosen or edited to fit the two general size groups. “Some seem to have been shaped to become spherical and take on certain dimensions”, says the researcher. If the smallest were found all over the site, the largest bullets were discovered, deposited in artificial cavities under the buildings of the last phase of occupation.

    Photo credit: University of Bristol

A plate with notches for the balls, also called kernos, found in the square of the House of Banks in Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. The way the balls are placed is an interpretation. Photo credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol

The AI ​​also supported the theory that the balls actually served as game pieces, “Because if they had been used as part of a weighing or counting system – which has been among the advanced theories that have been debated until now – one would have expected them to be classified into several other groups.”, continues Christianne Fernée. For his part, Konstantinos Trimmis believes so “The social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, reinforces the idea that they were part of a game played around social interaction. This gives a new insight into social interaction in the Bronze Age Aegean region”.

Who says farmers, says boards

The small spherical stone objects could thus have been played on stone slabs with cut marks and other indentations just discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. “These types of slabs have been found in Crete, the Levant, Cyprus, the island of Naxos, and even Santorini.”writes the duo. “The inclusion of the slabs, also known as Kernoi at Akrotiri, showed that the object’s function was more important than its materiality.” In fact, archaeologists could not find any pattern in the type of stone used, nor in its color, nor in its general shape. “It seems that a relatively flat slab that can be drilled or engraved with cupules did the trick.”takes over Christianne Fernée. “The size of the cupules is not the same from one plate to another, and the only real feature is the presence of a large mark and several smaller ones – probably 21 in all – arranged in a spiral or oval.”

    Photo credit: University of Bristol

Several slabs found throughout the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean. Photo credit: Christianne Fernée/University of Bristol.

However, the reason why such a quantity of orbs was discovered in Akrotiri and nowhere else is not clear. One of the hypotheses put forward is that it could be cultural: only the inhabitants of Akrotiri would have used stone balls to play with, while in other places the small game figures would have been made from seeds, legumes or balls of dung, organic remains that are not resistant to the ravages of the Time. Another possibility proposed to explain this lack of spheres in large numbers elsewhere: the existence of a research bias that would have caused the stones to pass unnoticed during the excavation process.

The next phase of research will be to apply a similar methodology to the plates, specifically to try to relate them to the spheres. The team also hopes to use artificial intelligence techniques to determine how the game was actually played. Because there’s still the real mystery: What were the rules?

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