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Archaeologists give new insights into mysterious stone spheres

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have suggested that mysterious stone spheres found at sites across the Aegean and Mediterranean could be ancient gaming pieces from early board games.

Previous studies indicate that the spheres varied in size within specific clusters and collections of spheres, which they now have explored the potential patterning within the concentrations to give new insights into their purpose.

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Spheres have been found at sites in Santorini, Crete, Cyprus, and other Greek Islands, with academics speculating that they could be sling stones, tossing balls, pieces from a counting/record-keeping system or as counters/pawns.

In a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by researchers from the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, the team examined common features on 700 stone spheres – which range from around 4,500 to 3,600 years old – found at the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The spheres are generally smaller than a modern golf ball and vary in colour and different materials. In sites across the Aegean and Akrotiri, there are stone slabs with shallow cup marks where the spheres could have sat or been placed.

sphere1 1
Groups of spheres from Akrotiri – Image Credit : Konstantinos Trimmis

Dr Ferneé said: “The most important finding of the study is that the spheres fit two major clusters (one of smaller and one of larger stones). This supports the hypothesis that they were used as counters for a board game with the spheres most possibly have been collected to fit these clusters rather than a counting system for which you would expect more groupings.”

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If these spheres are in-fact part of a board game, they will be one of the earliest examples, along with similar examples from the Levant and Egypt, such as the Egyptian Mehen and Senet.

Dr Trimmis added: “The social importance of the spheres, as indicated by the way they were deposited in specific cavities, further supports the idea of the spheres being part of a game that was played for social interaction. This gives a new insight into the social interaction in the Bronze Age Aegean.”

The next stage of the research is to apply a similar methodology to the slabs to see if there is clustering in the cup marks and trying to associate the spheres and slabs together. The team also hope to use artificial intelligence techniques to determine how the game was actually played.


University of Bristol

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103615

Header Image Credit : Konstantinos Trimmis

 

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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