Remnants of an Ancient Board Game Have Been Found in China

In a tomb near Qingzhou City in China, archaeologists have found the remnants of an ancient board game that hasn’t been played in over 1500 years.

The pieces found include a 14-face die made of animal tooth, 21 game pieces and a tile that appeared to be a piece of the game board. A skeleton was also found nearby – possibly belonging to a grave robber – in a shaft made by tomb looters.


The Game

Although no one is sure how it was played, archaeologists are fairly certain that the game pieces are from a game called “bo” or “liubo” as it was sometimes called. People stopped playing it around 1500 years ago.

A poet named Song Yu wrote a poem around 2,200 years ago seems to hint at what the game was like to play.

“Then, with bamboo dice and ivory pieces, the game of Liu Bo is begun; sides are taken; they advance together; keenly they threaten each other. Pieces are kinged, and the scoring doubled. Shouts of ‘five white!’ arise”

Sounds a bit like an ancient version of checkers.

The game uses a die with the numbers 1-6, each appearing twice, with two faces left blank. To the best of researchers’ knowledge, two players moved six game pieces around the points of a square in a symmetrical pattern. In some versions, sticks were thrown instead of the dice. It was immensely popular in during the Han Dynasty and has been depicted in sculpture from that time period.
No one is sure when it was invented, but according to legends, it was invented by Wu Cao, a minister to King Jie who reigned from 1728-1675 BCE.

The earliest remnant of a Luibo game was discovered in a royal tomb in Hebei, China. Archaeologists there found a pair of decorated stone boards from the 4th Century BCE.

There is even some evidence that the game spread beyond China. The Old Book of Tang mentions that Tibetans played the game. However, no Tibetan Liubo boards have been discovered. In addition, the Chinese translation of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra – an ancient Buddhist text – mentions the playing of several games including Luibo. This seems to suggest that the game also found its way to India. However, no game remnants have been found there either.


Other Ancient Games

Many games that are played today, including Mancala and Tic Tac Toe, can be traced back to ancient times.

Some can be traced back as far as 4000 BCE, and archaeologists and historians have worked hard to recover their pieces and rules. The game of Senet, for example has been dated all the way back to 3100 BCE and a copy of the game was found in King Tuts tomb.

It would seem that most societies, from the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia, to the Vikings, to the ancient Romans played board games. Boards themselves have been carved out of wood and stone for thousands of years. Variations on simple game pieces have been found carved out of stone, ivory and even human teeth and bone.

For more on ancient games, check out my slideshow of some of the earliest games ever found!

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