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21/08/2015 15:45 1876
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A unique exhibition presenting for the first time prehistoric, ancient, and medieval board and gambling games found in archaeological excavations in Central Northern Bulgaria has been opened by the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Veliko Tarnovo.

The exhibition entitled “Unknown Heritage” shows astragals, pieces, dices, and game boards discovered in archaeological excavations in the District of Veliko Tarnovo, which date back to different time periods, from the Chalcolitic (also Aeneolithic or Copper Age) until the Middle Ages.

A 5-minute 3D animation video presents the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval board gamesin use.

“The desire for games and entertainment emerged as early as the dawn of human civilization, and reflects in its own way not just the occupational but also the spiritual, cultural, and even aesthetic needs of the people,” explains the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History in a statement.

It adds that the earliest expressions of the desire for entertainment came down to ritual dances, races, wrestling, archery, and other sports or military games and exercises.

Games requiring ingenuity and resourcefulness, and especially games based on chance and luckwere especially popular,” says the Museum.

The ancient board game items displayed in the new exhibit include astragals, also known asknucklebones, which were derived from the carcasses of domesticated livestock such as goatsor sheep, and were additionally polished and processed. They were used for different games involving tossing and arrangement as early as the Chalcolithic period.

Astragals, or knucklebones from domestic livestock, were used to play popular board games in prehistoric and ancient times in today’s Northern Bulgaria. These knuckebones have been found in a Chalcolithic mound in the town of Petko Karavelovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

The find on display is from the Chalcolithic mound discovered near the town of Petko Karavelovo, and consists of 66 knucklebones, which have holes in the middle, and have been processed so that they would fit together in couples. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that they were used either for games, or for clairvoyance.

The earliest game presented in the Veliko Tarnovo exhibit is more than 6,000 years old: theknucklebones from the Chalcolithic mound in Petko Karavelovo are dated to 4,400-4,200 BC.

“The oldest [board game] items found in the Veliko Tarnovo region are from the Chalcolithic. These are the knucklebones. We have also displayed items from period of Ancient Rome, as well as from the Middle Ages, from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire,” explains Ivan Tsarov, Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio.

“As in any gambling game, there was cheating in the ancient games as well. For example, a dicefrom the Roman period has lead placed inside it so that it always falls on a certain side, which, of course, is known to the person who forged it. Cheating has always gone with gambling,” he adds.

Knucklebones were also used for playing the Antiquity period, and so were dices and boardpieces. Both the soldiers and the general population, and the aristocracy used them forentertainment.

“The ancient dices were made of bones, wood, stone, or metal. Two types of [ancient] dicegames are known – with a cup or on a board. The six-sided dice with the numbers from 1 to 6 was widespread but dices with two round sides and figures written on the other four were also used.Dice entertainment, even though it had to do with gambling, was considered more of a game of luck, fortuity, and chance. Sometimes the dices were also used for clairvoyance orfortunetelling,” explains the Veliko Tarnovo Museum.

Games with pieces moving on a board were also popular in ancient times. They were made ofstone, bones, wood, or glass. Even though the rules of the ancient board games are unknown, they seem similar to modern-day chess, draughts, backgammon, or Parcheesi.

As part of its special exhibit, the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History has put on displaydices and board pieces found in the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum.

“This find from the 2nd-3rd century AD includes several round board pieces, dices with the figures from 1 to 6, as well as a hollow artifact with the form of a parallelepiped decorated with circles. All of these items are made of bones, with the pieces being well polished,” explains the Museum.

It also explains that during the Middle Ages the entertainment games for the aristocracy were elaborate and decorated, while the populace used any kind of items in their board games.

The people in the Middle Ages usually made a brick or tile into a board, and used fragments ofbroken ceramic vessels as pieces. These kinds of board game pieces have been found on theTsarevets Hill, one of the two main fortified hills of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185-1396 AD.

The games with astragals, or knucklebones, in which whoever managed to toss them into a certain combination, or standing on their side, was the winner, were also popular in medieval Bulgaria.

“The finds and depictions of prehistoric, ancient, and medieval game artifacts complete the picture of the everyday life [in those periods], and provide curious knowledge about theentertainment activities and preferences of the people in difference ages,” concludes the statement of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History regarding its new exhibition.

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the “Unknown Heritage” exhibit of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the “Unknown Heritage” exhibit of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History