Why are European archaeological museums full of boards similar to Go boards? Did the oldest game first reach the West in antiquity?
A game board engraved in rock (right) is discovered in Tibet, and is dated to the seventh century a.C. Immediately it’s assumed that the game in question is Go, and it is incorporated into Tibetan history, and in general, to the constantly-debated origins of the game.
But similar boards appear throughout the celtic geography between the first and second centuries BCE. Spread by contact with Rome, it looks like they won widespread popularity, because the museums of Western Europe are full of them. Just in Asturias, boards and pieces have been found in the fortified villages of Allande and Chao Samartín (photo on the left).
But, what was being played in Europe on that board? If we listen to the vox populi on the Internet, five-in-line. Something doesn’t work. In Rome, they played not only 12 marks, knucklebones, and tesserae (dice), but also sophisticated and relatively well-known board games like the brigand’s game (latrunculi), a game halfway between Go and chess that required small boards, generally 10×10. We know that to play five-in-line, latrunculi boards were good enough and were used, in the same way that in China, Go boards were used.
So, to presume that these boards of 17 and 19 lines are manufactured specifically to play five-in-line, a younger game, is very risky. But, then, why these larger boards with those cared-for stones (calculi) of ivory or glass in two colors?
From the Middle East to the British Isles, and especially in Rome, ludus calculorum, “the game of stones,” or “of counting,” left a broad archaeological record in taverns, houses, military fortifications and fortified villages… but not its rules. In fact, it looks like the name by which we know it actually refers to a large set of games ranging from the Greek “pente grammai” — whose rules we don’t know beyond the board being 5×5 — to “tavili” –the ancestor of backgammon — and, on occasion, to the aforementioned “latrunculi.” Archaeological tells us that some of them traveled from the Orient to Egypt and Greece, surely around the eighth century BCE, and from Rome to Western Europe.
But something still doesn’t fit: all these games had boards with colored squares, like chess, while the large-sized boards that appear throughout the west of the Roman republic between the first and second centuries BCE are “intersection” boards, like Go. What if this sudden appearance of a new kind of board in ancient Europe points towards a specific phenomenon, to an “import?”
The theory of the importing of Go in the second century BCE
During the Han era (206 BCE-220 CE), Chinese emperors established links with many states with territory currently occupied by India, Iran and the Roman Empire (Ta Ching). The historian Sima Qiang (145-86 BCE) tells of a diplomatic mission accompanied by caravans of goods. There are various records of missions and commerce since the second century BCE, and by the middle of the first century, the “periplus erithreum” seems to have been an established route.
As a result, some historians think that this is the origin of the boards that we find in the fortified villages: pure and simple Go.
It is this direct origin, the product of commercial exchanges and direct diplomacy that would explain the sudden appearance of a new kind of “calculi” throughout the West of Empire. The new game, or at least the new boards, had so much success that there are many who identify them as possible origin of other later games, like the Viking hnefatafl, or its Anglo-Saxon derivative, Alea Evangelii.
According to this hypothesis, Go would have appeared in Europe as a result of commercial and diplomatic exchanges with Han China, and would have quickly become fashionable throughout the western zone of Roman influence through merchants and legions, and, given that its pieces are stones that are indistinguishable from each other, would have been known as what Latin-speakers called all such games: calculi, “counting.”
A meager literary record
Unfortunately, there are hardly any remaining literary records about counting games that could clear up doubts about their rules. Apuleyo, in “Golden Donkey,” tells us about a game move that would work in both lantrunculi and in Go. Pliny talks in his letters about the octogenarian mother of a friend who maintained her mental agility with “lusu calculorom,” and reading Martialis, we know that calculi boards — and also dice — were part the ideal of Roman “good living”:
Give me a barman and a butcher and a place to bathe, a barber and a calculi board and some dice, a few books personally selected, only one companion, not too crude, and an smooth-faced older boy with a sweetheart to content him: give me these, Rufus, even at Butuntum, and you may keep for yourself the Thermae of Nero.
The Roman West knew, by the name of “counting games” or “games of stones,” a whole series of board games in which, in contrast to chess or latrunculi, the squares were not colored, but rather, only the intersections were marked. Some of these games, like latrunculi itself, were based on surrounding the opponent’s pieces, and were associated with mental agility and the development of intellectual faculties. And we know that, as lighter entertainment, just as in Asia with Go boards, their boards were also sometimes used to play five-in-line (gomoku).
As with so many other things, “counting games” were lost in Europe with the decomposition of the Roman Empire, and were not rediscovered until the seventeenth century when the writings of Matteo Ricci uncovered Go for contemporaries as illustrious as Selenius and Leibnitz.
Were they really rediscovering a game that had already triumphed in Republican times? Had the ancient Romans and Iron-Age Celts played Go, as suggested by the proliferation of 17×17 and 19×19 boards throughout Western Europe coinciding with the first exchanges with Han China? The truth is that it’s possible, even probable. Data, artifacts, and references seem fit better than, for example, the common assumption among Asian historians that the most ancient boards found in Tibet were dedicated to Go.
But, what is certain is that neither in Tibet nor in Europe, with current archaeological and literary data, can we be certain about the rules. There simply is no record of them — we only have stones and boards. So, at least for the moment, the mystery continues, even though with what we know, representing Romans and Celts playing Go shouldn’t be shocking.
Translation by Steve Herrick.