The ancient world's greatest board games

Ludus Latrunculorum. Senet. Chaturanga. And don't forget Hnefatafl. These were just some of the board games that ancient people were into thousands of years ago. Over at Smithsonian, Meilan Solly explains "The Best Board Games of the Ancient World." From the magazine:

The rules of Mehen remain unclear, as the game faded from popularity following the decline of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is sparsely represented in the archaeological record.

Writing in 1990, Egyptologist Peter A. Piccione explained, “Based upon what we know of this game ... the feline game pieces moved in a spiral along the squares, apparently, from the tail on the outside to the head of the serpent at the center.” The spherical, marble-like tokens may have been similarly rolled through the “longer spiralling grooves.”

In Patolli, a gambling game invented by the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica, players raced to move pebbles from one end of a cross-shaped track to the other. Drilled beans used as dice dictated gameplay, but the exact rules of “entry and movement” remain unknown, as Parlett notes in the Oxford History of Board Games.

Among the Aztecs, Patolli held unusually high stakes, with participants wagering not just physical goods or currency, but their own lives. As Diego Durán, a Dominican friar who authored a 16th-century tome on Aztec history and culture, explained, “At this and other games the Indians not only would gamble themselves into slavery, but even came to be legally put to death as human sacrifices.”

Images from top down: "Senet from the Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund; "Mehen" by Anagoria (CC BY 3.0 Read the rest

Greek statue from 110 BCE of a girl showing her mom a laptop computer

Or in Italian, "Arte greca, pietra tombale di donna con la sua schiavetta, databile al 100 a.C. circa." Read the rest

The oldest genome ever sequenced

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen sequenced the oldest genome yet — 700,000-year-old DNA from an ancient ancestor of the horse. The Nature Podcast explains why doing this is valuable (and, no, it's not about creating a cloned ancient horse park) and how you go about sequencing such elderly, and thus degraded, DNA. Read the rest

Help transcribe ancient Egyptian texts

You don't need to know an ancient language to help scientists read ancient literature. Researchers are looking for volunteers for a crowdsource project aimed at transcribing (and, later, translating) the words written on a series of crumbling papyrus scrolls, found in a trash heap at the site of what was once Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Read the rest

Ancient Chinese art used a toxic lacquer made from a relative of poison ivy

On Christmas Day, I watched a documentary about the terra cotta warriors — thousands of clay soldiers built as funerary objects for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor. One crazy fact I learned: Unlike the type of lacquer we call shellac today (which comes from crushed beetles), ancient Chinese artists used a lacquer derived from the sap of the lacquer tree, a relative of poison ivy. Anybody tasked with the job of applying that lacquer can end up with a serious allergic reaction. Another fun fact: We've still never seen the inside of Qin Shi Huang's tomb. Partly, this is a bureaucratic issue. But the larger problem is the mercury-laden soil on top, possibly contaminated by Qin Shi Huang's tomb, itself, which was supposed to contain a scale model of his empire, complete with rivers and oceans flowing with (you guessed it) mercury. Read the rest

Spam email reveals the existence of ancient, giant furry armadillo things

Furry, shelled mammals the size of VW Beetles once roamed the Americas.

Newly-discovered Mayan calendar in Guatemala proves (again) the world won't end in 2012

William Saturno, a Boston University archeologist, excavates a mural in a house in Xultun. Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic

An archaeological expedition in the northeastern lowlands of Guatemala yields an amazing discovery: the "9th-century workplace of a city scribe, an unusual dwelling adorned with magnificent pictures of the king and other royals and the oldest known Maya calendar."

From Thomas Maugh's report in the Los Angeles Times, on the dig in the ruins of Xultun led by William Saturno of Boston University:

This year has been particularly controversial among some cultists because of the belief that the Maya calendar predicts a major cataclysm — perhaps the end of the world — on Dec. 21, 2012. Archaeologists know that is not true, but the new find, written on the plaster equivalent of a modern scientist's whiteboard, strongly reinforces the idea that the Maya calendar projects thousands of years into the future.

To paraphrase modern-day Maya priests I've spoken with on past travels in rural Guatemala: "Well, duh."

The findings were first reported Thursday in the journal Science. The full text of the report requires paid subscription, but a recent Science podcast covers the news, and is available here (PDF transcript or MP3 for audio). Read the rest