INA President Deborah Carlson spent this summer at INA’s Bodrum Research Center in Turkey overseeing the publication of the Classical Greek shipwreck at Tektaş Burnu, excavated by INA between 1999 and 2001.
“One of the items on our research agenda was to reexamine those ‘artifacts’ excavated from the wreck but not clearly associated with the wreck; these can be some of the most challenging objects to assess and understand” says Carlson. While working with the stone objects from the wreck, she made an interesting discovery. “Nearly all of the stones raised from the wreck had been registered as ballast, and a good number of fist-sized cobbles probably are.” But among the so-called ballast stones Carlson observed almost two dozen tiny pebbles.
“As I set them aside to examine them as a group I observed that virtually all of them are thin, flat and perfectly circular; then I realized that the majority had come from grid square R9 during the first excavation season. One does not expect to find ballast in the upper layers of a shipwreck at the beginning of the excavation. These pebbles weren’t ballast but gaming pieces!”
The identification is strengthened by the fact that R9 was home to other artifacts believed to be personal items associated with the ship’s crew, including two flat bone tiles identified upon excavation as gaming pieces. Depictions of game playing in ancient Greece are few but one of the most famous is a vase painting depicting warriors Ajax and Achilles playing a board game long assumed to be draughts or checkers. One ancient game discussed by Roman writers is Ludus Latrunculorum (Game of Thieves) which involved moving one’s own pieces in such a way as to flank the opponent and capture his/her piece. R.C. Bell, who published two volumes on ancient board games, uses archaeological and iconographic evidence to argue that each player was equipped with 16 pieces, either all black or all white, as well as one blue piece called a dux (Latin for leader) which had increased power. It is an intriguing possibility, then, that the two bone tiles from the Tektas Burnu shipwreck represent such special pieces and together with the numerous black and beige pebbles identified this summer constitute a Greek example of an ancient game chronicled centuries later by Roman authors.