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Work Knucklebones

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Objects from everyday life

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Osselets

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Objects from everyday life

Author(s):
Marie-Noël Bellessort

Knucklebones, like throwsticks, featured among the accessories for board games, and were used by players to determine how far their pieces could move along the track. They were not Egyptian in origin, but were imported from the Near East from the early New Kingdom onward.

Form and material

The first knucklebones were taken from the tarsal bones of hoofed animals—but of young animals only, as with age the tarsals fuse to neighboring bones. The Egyptians preferred artificial knucklebones, carved from a variety of materials including bone, ivory, faience, and wood. These were sometimes realistic, imitating the bumps and hollows of the original object (as in this example), or on the contrary were highly simplified rectangles, barely rounded at the ends.

One of the Amarna tablets (clay tablets inscribed with Akkadian cuneiform writing that shed light on diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Near East in the second half of the 18th Dynasty) informs us that King Tushratta of Mitanni sent two games including knucklebones inlaid with gold to Amenophis III on the occasion of his daughter's wedding.

Period of use

Knucklebones are not represented in reliefs and paintings from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and there were none in the tomb of Hesire. They were not introduced into Egypt until the early New Kingdom, but were known in Central Europe and the Near East from the 3rd millennium BC onward.

Game boxes for Senet and Twenty Squares contained knucklebones. Examples have been found inside the drawers of such boxes, or placed next to game tables in tombs; of the eight that were found in Tutankhamun's tomb, six were made of ivory (two of these being in the drawer) and two of resin. They have also been found in a domestic context during the excavation of houses.

How knucklebones were used

Knucklebones are shown in tomb paintings above game pieces, below the game table (see the scene on the box of Imenmes), or in the players' hands. They are often represented in pairs—perhaps one per player.
In its natural form, a knucklebone has two broad, parallel faces with an undulating surface, and two narrower faces which are harder to land on when a throw is made. A specific value was no doubt attributed to each side, as in the classical world where each face was worth 1, 3, 4, or 6.

We know of only eight scenes of games featuring knucklebones, and in seven of those the game pieces are arranged identically in two separate groups (five to the left and five to the right), rather than alternately (as was the case for Senet). The scenes showing knucklebones may mostly have represented games of Twenty Squares, in which the pieces were arranged differently than for Senet—a hypothesis supported by the fact that knucklebones arrived in Egypt at the same time as the game of Twenty Squares.

Technical description

  • Osselets

  • serpentine : E 11171calcaire : E 21565os : N 1830

    l. : 3,15 cm. ; L. : 2,13 cm. ; Pr. : 1,60 cm.

  • E 11171, E 21565, N 1830

  • Egyptian Antiquities

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