Knucklebones — known today as jacks — is one of the oldest games in the world. It’s history stretches back over 5,500 years. Yet it wasn’t just a game. Knucklebones were used in a variety of ways by many cultures, and these uses suggest that games were not only integral to playtime — they were also intimately connected to religion and the afterlife.
How do we know this? Knucklebones have been found in vast quantities at all types of archaeological sites — graves, sanctuaries, domestic quarters, and caves. They’ve also been found across a wide area, mostly the ancient Mediterranean, Near East, and Anatolia and spreading into northern Europe and across Asia.
The largest archaeological find to date was at the Corsican cave near Delphi (the site of an ancient Greek oracle). That find had over 23,000 knucklebones — many of which had been modified by planing, perforation, or inscribing them with Greek letters and abbreviations. Another find from the Korykeion Cave on Parnasseus (also near Delphi) had thousands of knucklebones, which “may have been thrown inside the cave as offerings to deities or as amulets originally used in gaming activities” (De Grossi Mazzorin).
So when did knucklebones start? Well, we don’t actually know. Instances of knucklebones that we can identify as being used for gaming or rituals — and not just left because the animals were eaten — date back to Neolithic times. So we can assume that the game might be one of the earliest — in fact, it’s not a stretch to think that “cave men” (and women) happened to pick up the knucklebones after eating an animal and decided to play.
The earliest written sources that I’ve located come from the ancient Greeks. Sophocles attributes the game to Palamedes, who introduced it to his Greek countrymen as a game to play during the Trojan War (in the 13th or 12th century BCE). Herodotus and Plato describe knucklebones as a foreign game introduced to Greece. Herodotus named the Lydians, an Anatolian people who lived in Lydia around the 7th century BCE (though we only know about them through the Greeks and scant surviving archaeological evidence). Plato attributes it to the Egyptian god Thoth, who invented the game, gave it the the Egyptians, and then the Egyptians taught the Greeks.
Whatever the origins, the basic premise is simple: it’s a game played with the knucklebones of animals, primarily sheep and goats. Later, knucklebones were made of a range of materials including brass, copper, silver, gold, glass, bone, ivory, and marble. They are typically found in sets of 4 or 5, so we know that they’re a lot like dice sets. They are also small, about two centimeters long by one centimeter wide.
But what is most interesting is that no side of a knucklebone is alike: “Each piece has four long sides and two short sides. Of the four longer sides, two are noticeably broader. One of the broader sides is concave, while the other is convex, just as one of the narrower sides is indented and the other is flat. Their corners are either rounded or pointed so that they are unable to stand on one end” (Good).
Another interesting aspect is that, much like modern dice bags, various vessels were developed to keep knucklebones in. These included bags worn by the player, but also various forms of pottery. One example is the Terracotta pyxis (box), currently held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This box dates between 425 and 400 BCE, and it was likely used to hold knucklebones. One side of the box depicts two women playing knucklebones and the finial on the lid is actually shaped like a knucklebone.
The most stunning example of knucklebone containers is the Sotades astragalos, a vase made in the shape of a knucklebone (“astragalos”) made around 460 BCE. The images painted on it depict one man and several women. It’s unclear what these images depict — perhaps a Greek myth? Or a scene from real life?
First, let’s take a look at knucklebones as a game. In Ancient Greece, they were called “astragaloi,” and in Latin they were termed “tali.” Whatever the name, there were several ways to play. In fact, there’s so many different ways that it would take an entire academic essay just to discuss each one. So instead of diving into this and boring you to death, let’s take a look at the most common ways.
Knucklebones are most similar to the modern of jacks — the key pieces stay the same while the method of playing can change based on the players’ preferences. It’s a game that can be played alone or in groups. One of the most common ways is to toss all of the knucklebones in the air and catch as many as possible in your hands before they hit the ground. The player who can catch the most wins. Another method is to throw the knucklebones into a dirt hole or the opening of a small vessel, and thus the player with the best aim wins.
De Grossi Mazzorin et al. note several ways that the Ancient Greeks and Romans could play: “During the classical period, there were a number of knuckle bone game variations. Knuckle bones could be used in the Tropa or in the Penthelita or in the Omilla games. For this game, players tossed the bones on the ground and recorded their point value. The Romans had a complex scoring system for knuckle bone games, with the highest score going to the Venus, where four bones were tossed and displayed four different sides. Other scores were calculated on the basis of the point value of the sides displayed. With four knuckle bones, different scores and up to 35 variations were possible.”
Literary and artistic sources from the classical period note that players were very competitive and even protective of their knucklebone sets. (Sounds like some gamers I’ve known in modern day.) In the Iliad, Patroklos mentions losing a game of knucklebones as a child and becoming so enraged that he killed one of his fellow players. And various Hellenistic statues depict children playing the game who are biting at each other.
Another mode of play was called “Five stones” or “pentelithoi.” This version is believed to have primarily been a women’s game and also similar to jacks. Five stones survived long after the Classical period. One of the most iconic works of gaming history is Brugel’s “Children’s Games,” painted in 1560. When you look closely, you can actually find his depiction of two girls playing the game of knucklebones. In 1894, Alice Gomme noted in “Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland” that “hucklebones” (another name for knucklebones) were used to play Fivestones, a game nearly identical to jacks.
Other art and literary sources show us that knucklebones continued to be played and spread out across the world. In 1734, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin painted “Les Osselets,” which depicts a young woman playing the game. The name of this painting is unique because “osselets” translates to “ossicles,” meaning the little bones of the human ear. Yet the French word for knucklebone is “ossicle,” so we can assume that the woman is playing knucklebones. She tosses a ball in the air while four knucklebones lie on the table before her. We know these are knucklebones based on their dimensions — long and wide on two sides, long and narrow on two sides, and short and narrow on two sides. We catch her right before she seeks to collect as many bones as she can before the ball lands.
Another source comes from Dorothy Howard, who wrote about games in Australia during her visit in the 1950s. She witnessed the game still being played with real knucklebones, though she also noted that plastic knucklebone pieces were available in shops. As she states, “In the old days a child bought his bones for ‘tuppenny,’ took them home to mother who boiled them clean, then dyed with ink or with the juice of berries.” She also noted that poorer children would use carefully selected stones if they couldn’t afford knucklebones. Howard also went on to describe a woman who demonstrated several methods of play from her childhood in the 1880s, including Ones, Scatters, Juggles, No juggles, Horses and stables, Mice in hole, Skim the milk, Click, and No clicks.
By the 1970s, academics studying play had also found knucklebones continuing in its original vicinity–that of Iran. Nerissa Russell noted that, “A children’s game in modern western Iran uses two knucklebones that are both thrown like dice and shot against each other like marbles. […] In Turkey children play a more elaborate game. Players arrange knucklebones in rows, and then they take turns throwing a larger and heavier, sometimes leaded, astragalus at one of the rows in an attempt to turn over the knucklebones. Depending on the faces turned up on the thrown and hit knucklebones, the player may win all the knucklebones in the ground.”
Her evidence, and accounts by others, documented knucklebones continuing as a game into modern times. In fact, it is still played in Spain and some regions of South America, primarily at burials as a way of helping the soul of the deceased to ascend to heaven.
Wait, a game to help the deceased? You read that right. Knucklebones weren’t just for fun. In fact, their links to the spiritual go way back — and range from being objects of divination to amulets of protection and reverence placed in ancient graves. Tune in to Part 2 to find out.
De Grossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti. “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece.” Anthropozoologica 48 (2): 371-380. http://dx.doi.org/10.5252/az2013n2a13.
Good, Alexandra. “Knucklebones.” Archaeology of Daily Life. John Hopkins Archaeological Museum. http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life/childhood/knucklebones/
Howard, Dorothy. “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia.” Western Folklore 27 (1), Jan. 1958. http://museumvictoria.com.au/pages/6363/1996_no_30_31_nov_2.pdf
Bernaldez-Sanchez, E., Garcia-Vinas, E., Gamero-Esteban, M., Amores-Carredano, F., and Ocana-Garcia de Veas, A. “Knucklebones and other animal deposits in the ‘Cruz del Negro’ necropolis: Possible Phoenician funerary rituals in SW Spain?” Anthropozoologica 48 (2): 323-340. http://dx.doi.org/10.5252/az2013n2a10.
Knutson, C. “Early Games of Dice.” MacGregor Historic Games, 2010. http://students.expression.edu/historyofgames/files/2011/09/Dice_Booklet_EarlyDiceGames_HistoricGames.pdf
Neils, Jenifer, John Howard Oakley, Katerine Iart, and Lesley A. Beaumont. Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past. Yale University Press, 2003.
Russell, Nerissa. Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, 2011.