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.
The statue above features a woman who is believed to have been throwing knucklebone, while clasping the bag in which the bones were held (a “phormiskos,” or dice bag). She was made in a workshop near the Acropolis in Athens around 330 BCE. This was a really high-quality piece, made from refined orange clay and with lots of details. Because of this, we know that women were playing knucklebones a lot — such refined depictions wouldn’t occur if they weren’t. But it also provides us a clue to something else: that knucklebones may have been part of divination.
As described by Mathieu Beguine for this piece,
Here, the girl playing is placing herself in the hands of chance, a reference to fate and the gods that preside over it. The young girl destined to be a wife is placing herself in the hands of Aphrodite, a divinity who became more and more important from the 4th century BC onward. Indeed, the ‘Aphrodite throw,’ where each knucklebone fell on a different side, was the best throw. Similarly, a girl waiting to be married was sometimes named philastragale, which means ‘loving knucklebones.’ If placed in the tomb of an adolescent girl, the figurine could have symbolized the thwarted fate of a future wife, who died before her time. If offered as an ex-voto in a sanctuary, it could also highlight the transition from the status of adolescents to that of married woman.
Statues like this were copied during the Victorian era, and featured more relaxed, sentimental poses that suggest Victorian interpretations of recent archaeological finds. This is important, because much of what we initially knew about Ancient Greece was shaped by the Victorians’ interpretations of their finds.
Whatever the origin of this interpretation, it is now widely believed that knucklebones would be used by oracles, or by anyone, in order to discern fate. Young, unmarried women would play knucklebones in this manner, though we aren’t sure exactly what they were seeking. Perhaps it was to know whether she would marry soon, or if the man she currently loved would be her fate — much like young girls of the 1990s played with Magic 8 Balls.
Additionally, evidence that the Ancient Greeks imbued their knucklebones with a sense of inherent power or magic can be found in instances of burnt astragali being found. Some of these finds showed signs of use before having been burnt. This suggests that the knucklebones were either used in a different kind of divination ritual or perhaps were burned in order to get rid of their power.
We can back up this assertion with evidence from the Thonga of Mozambique, who used astragali for divination as well:
Sheep astragali represent the chief and his family; goat astragali represent commoners. Sets contain astragali from male and female animals of different ages to represent male and female human in five age stages: child, adolescent, adult, mature adult, and elder. The ancestors communicate to the living through these knucklebones when they are cast before taking ritual action. The Buryat and Kirghiz use single, apparently unmodified sheep astragali for divination to determine the sex of the next child after the birth of a baby. Most Buryat keep sets of knucklebones for everyday divination, with one side signifying good fortune. (Russell, 134-135.)
Additional evidence comes from Central Asia, where four knucklebones (known in Mongolian as shagai) were rolled on the ground. Each side was given a name: Camel, Horse, Sheep, or Goat. There was also a fifth position, cow, that was possible only on uneven ground. The two convex sides were considered lucky, while the concave sides were unlucky. To roll all four sides on one throw was considered very good fortune.
Perhaps Ancient Greek women also used astralagi to determine their child’s sex, or for other everyday purposes. It may have even been like flipping a coin — whatever side the knucklebone landed on determined a decision. Whatever the means, the various depictions and finds of knucklebones, and their ritual use elsewhere, suggest that these were more than just game pieces: they were instruments of fate.
Grave Goods & Possibilities
Finally, we know a lot of this because knucklebones are a fairly common find in graves. This suggests that knucklebones were very important to people’s lives, and their diffusion suggests that they were popular to many different kinds of people in the ancient world.
In Italy, knucklebones have been found in graves at Grotte, Populonia, and the Varranone cemetery in Poggio License. Most were found in tombs of adults, but there have been some found in the graves of infants and children. At Locri Epizefiri, knucklebones were found arranged in particular patterns on or around the bodies. This suggests they may have been viewed as objects of protection — able to protect the dead (or maybe even the living from the dead). Depictions of knucklebones in block-anchors around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea further support this aspect.
Another notable find was at the Cigarralejo necropolis near Mula, Murcia in Spain. The Princess’s grave contained 300 knucklebones, along with spindle whorls and a spool, which suggested that the knucklebones may have been used in weaving — perhaps as decorations.
Also in Spain are the finds at Cruz del Negro in Carmona, Seville, dating between the 8th and 4th century BCE. These are likely of Phoenician origin, and feature 308 knucklebones made from caprine (Carpinae) species like goat and sheep. Fifty of these have clear mark of polishing and thermo-alteration, suggesting that they were altered in color or texture — much like we create dice of many materials and colors today. At Cruz del Negro, however, the knucklebones were only present in youth graves, which suggests that it was more of a children’s game in ancient Spain.
Knucklebones could also have been used for a variety of other things. Given their use as dice, it is likely that they were also used for mathematics. They were most likely used for probability equations. Unfortunately, the archaeological contexts in which many ancient knucklebones are found don’t support this notion. The closest we’ve come are the caches of knucklebones found in storerooms at the Iron Age sites of Tel Beer-Sheba and Tel Ta’anach in Israel.
Another use was associated with trade. Knucklebones were a high-value item, as we’ve established through their presence as grave goods. But they were also used at other key moments in life. Genghis Khan is known for having entered into sworn relationships through the exchanging of gifts, and we have records that indicate one of the types of gifts he gave or received were knucklebone sets.
Finally, there is some evidence that knucklebones were used for personal decoration to note the wearer’s connection to the game — much like the collection of dice jewelry currently made from d20s and the like. Knucklebones made of precious stones or decorative materials like glass may have been used in this way. And it was so prevalent, that all but one of the knucklebones currently held by John Hopkins Archaeological Museum are made of glass. Painted and pierced knucklebones have also been found, notably at Gordion (capital of ancient Phrygia) and at Eneolithic Varna in Bulgaria (which featured “golden” astragalus).
Knucklebones: Dice for the Ages
Whatever their use in a specific time or place, knucklebones were as prevalent and their uses as varied as the many dice we play with today. Their history stretches back over 5,500 years and is intimately connected to everyday gaming, religion, and decisions. We’ve seen this in many ways:
- The discovery of over 23,000 knucklebones at the Corsican cave near Delphi, site of an ancient Greek oracle, hinting at their use as offerings to the gods or in divination rituals;
- Descriptions in Ancient Greek literature as a game introduced to Greece by the Lydians and played during the Trojan War (perhaps even by Achilles);
- Illustrations on ancient Greek pyxis, used as dice containers, and even on the dice themselves; and
- Many grave finds from around Europe, showing their association with the death and perhaps hinting at their importance in the afterlife as game pieces or items of protection.
There is also evidence of their continuing importance, as I showed in Part 1 with the 1560 Brugel painting “Children’s Games,” as well as “Les Osselets” painted in 1734 by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin.
Today, knucklebones (shagai) are still played in Mongolia, particularly at the Naadam festival. Players flick the shagai pieces with the middle finger of one hand along a wooden board held in the other hand. The goal is to send the shagai over a distance of about ten meters. They also play other games with the shagai, such as Horse race, Birthing camels, Cat’s game, Full toss, Open catch, Twelve years, and Four animals. Shagai are even still exchanged as tokens of friendship and used as items of decoration, especially for musical instruments like the Kazakh national musical instrument, the jetigen.
Knucklebones are, perhaps, the oldest game ever played.
(Want to play? Check out Thingiverse to download and 3D print your own!)
De Grossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti. “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece.” Anthropozoologica 48 (2): 371-380.
Good, Alexandra. “Knucklebones.” Archaeology of Daily Life. John Hopkins Archaeological Museum.
Howard, Dorothy. “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia.” Western Folklore 27 (1), Jan. 1958.
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.
Knutson, C. “Early Games of Dice.” MacGregor Historic Games, 2010.
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.