More than child's play, board game festival highlights historical significance
By Bridget Balch
A deep red chess piece sits on a bookshelf in British Museum curator Irving Finkel's office. That queen is significant for two reasons. First, it is a replica of a piece that dates back to 1150 A.D., representing a small part of the historical significance of board games that Finkel has studied nearly his entire life. Second, the piece was used as a prop in the "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" movie.
Finkel told a crowd in the Houston Museum of Natural Science's planetarium Saturday about the role of board games in ancient societies.
For Finkel, fascination with board games was a childhood hobby that he never outgrew. His interest in games would prove relevant to one of his great professional accomplishments, when he used his expertise in cuneiform - an ancient form of writing invented by them Sumerians - to translate the rules of a 4,500-year-old game now known as the Royal Game of Ur.
Board games, Finkel said, are often overlooked by archeologists and historians, but reveal a lot about how societies have developed. Various ancient games made their way from one civilization to the next through mercenaries, merchants and missionaries, linking people of different languages and cultures.
"It's kind of a force in the world," Finkel explained. "It's a human thing, not Western or Eastern. The human race has always looked for distraction."
The lecture was hosted by the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and was followed by an Ancient Games Festival, where kids and adults alike faced off at familiar board games like chess and checkers, as well as tried their hand at ancient games, including the Royal Game of Ur, Go, which originated in China, Mancala from ancient Mesopotamia, Parcheesi from India and Senet from ancient Egypt.
Julia Nguyen, a 16-year-old volunteer, laughed at her bad luck while playing the Royal Game of Ur against 11-year-old Eagle Pollack-Whittlesey, who ultimately defeated her. Nguyen explained to onlookers that the game involves both strategy and luck.
For Nguyen, who is usually a fan of video games, playing the ancient board game felt like a connection to the past. "It's very interesting," she said. "Not everything has changed. There's still a basis of things we have in common."