5,000 year old tokens are game pieces?

The title of a news article at io9 is Archaeologists Unearth Pieces from a 5,000 Year-Old Board Game.

A Turkish archaeologist, of Haluk Sa?lamtimur of Ege University in ?zmir, Turkey, discovered the variously shaped tokens while excavating Bronze Age graves at Ba?ur Höyük near Siirt in southeast Turkey.

From io9.com
From io9.com

Sa?lamtimur, according to the online article at io9, thinks this is evidence of tokens being used as gaming pieces, apparently since they were found in one cache rather than as single, scattered pieces from multiple excavation units.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I’d like to see more information, particularly regarding the context(s) surrounding the pieces. Denise Schmandt-Besserat has long held a competing hypothesis about such tokens, which are found throughout the Near East around this time and even earlier. Indeed, some of her finds have been found in contexts which lend her hypotheses much credibility. Schmandt-Besserat sees these as early counting tokens -in short, an accountant’s spreadsheet or ledger. This idea is supported by the discovery of these sorts of tokens in bullae, small hollow balls of clay in which tokens were stored.

The idea is that you put small tokens representing trade items (goats, grain, hides, etc.) in a hollow ball of clay that is fired to harden. Perhaps you’ve pressed the tokens into the soft exterior of the clay before enclosing and firing. The recipient can then receive goods from you through a middleman who knows that the goods are represented by the tokens inside the clay ball. Keeping a little for himself becomes a risky proposition.

Still, it is somewhat fun to think that there were Bronze Age gamer-nerds around 5,000 years ago.

It’s also possible that both hypotheses are correct. Tokens could have been multi-use.