Wednesday, April 12, 2023 by DJ Uncertain #art

Ficus Interfaith: The Royal Game of Ur

Games are sculpted experiences of practicality. What’s interesting about games is that if they are sculpted practicality, then the beauty emerges in the practical action. So when you play a game, it’s not the game that’s beautiful, it’s YOU that’s beautiful!

Listen to Ficus Interfaith reading about The Royal Game of Ur, the oldest gameboard we know of (but don't entirely know the rules of). You hear them playing few rounds on the terrazo gameboard they made too. And then go see their show up now at Deli Gallery

Segment here and transcript here -->

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares or simply the Game of Ur, is
a two-player strategy race board game that was first played in ancient Mesopotamia during the
early third millennium BC. The game was popular across the Middle East among people of all
social strata and boards for playing it have been found at locations as far away from
Mesopotamia as Crete and Sri Lanka. At the height of its popularity, the game acquired spiritual
significance, and events in the game were believed to reflect a player's future and convey
messages from deities or other supernatural beings. The Game of Ur remained popular until
late antiquity, when it stopped being played, possibly evolving into, or being displaced by, an
early form of backgammon. It was eventually forgotten everywhere except among the Jewish
population of the Indian city of Kochi, who continued playing a version of it until the 1950s
when they began emigrating to Israel.
The Game of Ur received its name because it was first rediscovered by the English archaeologist
Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur between 1922 and
1934. Copies of the game have since been found by other archaeologists across the Middle
East. The rules of the Game of Ur as it was played in the second century BC have been
preserved on a Babylonian clay tablet written by the scribe Itti-Marduk-balāṭu. Based on this
tablet and the shape of the gameboard, British Museum curator Irving Finkel reconstructed the
basic rules of how the game might have been played. The object of the game is to run the
course of the board and bear all one's pieces off before one's opponent. Like modern
backgammon, the game combines elements of both strategy and luck.
The British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered five gameboards of the Game of Ur
during his excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur between 1922 and 1934. Because the game
was first discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, it became known as the "Royal Game of Ur",
but later archaeologists uncovered other copies of the game from other locations across the
Middle East.Each of the boards discovered by Woolley date to around 3,000 BC. All five boards
were of an identical type, but they were made of different materials and had different
decorations. Woolley reproduced images of two of these boards in his 1949 book, The First
Phases. One of these is a relatively simple set with a background composed of discs of shell
with blue or red centers set in wood-covered bitumen. The other is a more elaborate one
completely covered with shell plaques, inlaid with red limestone and lapis lazuli. Other
gameboards are often engraved with images of animals.
When the Game of Ur was first discovered, no one knew how it was played. Then, in the early
1980s, Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum, translated a clay tablet written c. 177 BC
by the Babylonian scribe Itti-Marduk-balāṭu describing how the game was played during that
time period, based on an earlier description of the rules by another scribe named Iddin-Bēl. This

tablet was written during the waning days of Babylonian civilization, long after the time when
the Game of Ur was first played. It had been discovered in 1880 in the ruins of Babylon and sold
to the British Museum. Finkel also used photographs of another tablet describing the rules,
which had been in the personal collection of Count Aymar de Liedekerke-Beaufort, but was
destroyed during World War I. This second tablet was undated, but is believed by
archaeologists to have been written several centuries earlier than the tablet by Itti-Marduk-
balāṭu and to have originated from the city of Uruk The backs of both tablets show diagrams of
the gameboard, clearly indicating which game they are describing. Based on these rules and the
shape of the gameboard, Finkel was able to reconstruct how the game might have been played.
The Game of Ur is a race game and it is probably a direct ancestor of the tables, or
backgammon, family of games, which are still played today. The Game of Ur is played using two
sets of seven checker-like game pieces. One set of pieces is white with five black dots and the
other set is black with five white dots. The gameboard is composed of two rectangular sets of
boxes, one containing three rows of four boxes each and the other containing three rows of
two boxes each, joined together by a "narrow bridge" of two boxes. The gameplay involves
elements of both luck and strategy. Movements are determined by rolling a set of four-sided,
tetrahedron-shaped dice. Two of the four corners of each die are marked and the other two are
not, giving each die an equal chance of landing with a marked or unmarked corner facing up.
The number of marked ends facing upwards after a roll of the dice indicates how many spaces a
player may move during that turn. A single game can last up to half an hour and can be very
intense. Games are very often unpredictable and close at the end.
The object of the game is for a player to move all seven of their pieces along the course and off
the board before their opponent. On all surviving gameboards, the two sides of the board are
always identical with each other, indicating that the two sides of the board belong to each
player. When a piece is on one of the player's own squares, it is safe from capture, but, when it
is on one of the eight squares in the middle of the board, the opponent's pieces may capture it
by landing on the same space, sending the piece back off the board so that it must restart the
course from the beginning. This means there are six "safe" squares and eight "combat" squares.
There can never be more than one piece on a single square at any given time, so having too
many pieces on the board at once can impede a player's mobility.
When a player rolls a number using the dice, they may choose to move any of their pieces on
the board or add a new piece to the board if they still have pieces that have not entered the
game. A player is not required to capture a piece every time they have the opportunity.
Nonetheless, players are required to move a piece whenever possible, even if it results in an
unfavorable outcome. All surviving gameboards have a colored rosette in the middle of the
center row. According to Finkel's reconstruction, if a piece is located on the space with the
rosette, it is safe from capture. Finkel also states that when a piece lands on any of the three
rosettes, the player gets an extra roll. In order to remove a piece from the board, a player must
roll exactly the number of spaces remaining until the end of the course plus one. If the player
rolls a number any higher or lower than this number, they may not remove the piece from the

Leslie Kurke writes, “Games may seem an absurdly trivial domain for scholarly investigation but
I would contend that it is precisely their lowly unexamined status that endows games with
extraordinary power to inculcate values within culture.
We must attend to all that ‘goes without saying because it comes without saying’,  to all that is
on the near side of language, the diffuse education which moves directly from practice to
practice without passing through discourse. Games would seem to be a paradigmatic case for
such sociological analysis, since continuously and from an early age, children participate in
these symbolic, rule bound structures that teach them how to behave in “real life.”