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Work "Twenty Squares" game board

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Objects from everyday life

Plateau de jeu de "20 cases"

© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Objects from everyday life

Marie-Noël Bellessort

The game of "Twenty Squares" was played at home or among friends, and was one of the Egyptians' favorite pastimes. Some examples of such everyday items from the world of the living have been discovered in villages and fortresses, sometimes engraved on paved floors; others, unearthed in a funerary context, were part of the deceased's funerary equipment, and have usually been found complete with game pieces: pawns, throwsticks, or knucklebones.

The board layout through the ages

The game of "Twenty Squares" is an ancient invention; it no doubt originated in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC in the region of Ur, then traversed the Near East to arrive in Cyprus and Egypt around 1600 BC. The first tracks for the games played in Ur were fairly compact, with two blocks of squares joined by a little gangway. By the 2nd millennium BC, the board layout consisted of a column of eight squares topped by a block of 3 x 4 squares.

On some boards, certain squares were inscribed with a rosette, a cross, or the owner's name and titles (as on the game board in the name of Imenmes). Any inscriptions were always made in the same places, which gives some clues as to the way the pawns advanced—in four stages, each consisting of four squares. These markings on particular squares may have indicated a bonus, or a penalty if the players did not land there.

Both players followed a same track with an identical number of squares. Prior to entering the game the pawns were probably lined up on either side of the central column, waiting for a successful throw of the dice, knucklebones, or throwsticks.

When "Twenty Squares" arrived in Egypt it soon became associated with Senet, and both games were often presented on either side of the same box. The Senet pieces—a different set for each player—were naturally used for "Twenty Squares" too; they were made of the same material, and were shaped like either cones or reels.

An everyday object

This piece of limestone was probably engraved with the "Twenty Squares" track by an inhabitant of the village of Deir el-Medina—home to the craftsmen who decorated the tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings.

It is a typical example of the kind of board that was used for leisure purposes in a domestic context. It was rather hastily engraved, and has a visible "blunder": the block of squares initially engraved created a 5 x 3 format, but as the game required a layout of 4 x 3, two squares were roughly erased on either side of the eighth square in the central column.

Religious meaning

Like Senet, "Twenty Squares" changed in the late 2nd millennium BC; the very form and spirit of the game evolved, and it acquired a religious meaning.

The "Twenty Squares" game board was modified to include 31 squares (two blocks of 3 x 4 squares, linked by a column of 7). Funerary texts of the period that refer to games mention the deceased's desire to be admitted into the divine pantheon as the 31st god; for this wish to be fulfilled, no doubt he had to win this new version of the game.

In one of the three known representations of this game board, the following text is inscribed above the track: "[Game] of the combination of two Twenty Squares"… which would tend to prove that our game was simply known as "Twenty Squares."

Technical description

  • Plateau de jeu de "20 cases"

    Entre 1500 et 1200 avant J.-C. (Nouvel Empire)

    trouvé à Deir el-Médineh

  • calcaire

    l. : 19,80 cm. ; L. : 12 cm. ; Pr. : 4,20 cm.

  • E 14449

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Room 329
    Vitrine 7 : Jeux à damiers

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