Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
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 About Knucklebones?
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).
When Was Knucklebones First Played?
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.
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 and 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 shown previously 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.
© 2018 Tiffany Isselhardt