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4,000-year-old stone game board discovered

Game board
Game board

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old stone game board whilst excavating a Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement near the village of Ayn Bani Saidah in the Sultanate of Oman.

The excavations were done as part of an Omani-Polish project called “The development of settlements in the mountains of northern Oman in the Bronze and Iron Ages” headed jointly by Dr Sultan al Bakri, Director General of Antiquities at the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism and Prof. Piotr Bieliński from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archeology, University of Warsaw (PCMA UW).

The project is an endeavour to study the settlements within the Qumayrah Valley, where preliminary surveys have earlier located prehistoric campsites, burials, settlements and tower structures, all within close vicinity of Ayn Bani Saida.

In the latest study, the researchers identified an ancient settlement from the Umm al-Nar period (2500-2000 BC), where they unearthed the remains of several large circular towers and Bronze Age buildings.

“At the end of December, another season of archaeological fieldwork in Qumayrah Valley in Northern Oman came to a close. Archaeologists identified another tower in a Bronze Age settlement, unearthed evidence of copper smelting and discovered a 4,000-year-old... game board”, said a statement from PCMA UW.

According to Prof Bieliński, in the current season, settlements from the Umm an-Nar phase of the Bronze Age and Iron Age II situated near the village of Ayn Bani Saidah were the main focus of the team’s work.

“The abundance of traces of settlement from different periods proves that this valley was an important place in prehistory, and perhaps also in the history of Oman”, she explains.

Qumayrah Valley is a micro-region that contains many archaeological remains located along a 10-km-long L-shaped hollow between massifs forming part of the Jebel Hajar Mountain range. In ancient times this was a major route connecting Bat in the south, Buraimi and Al-Ayn in the north, and the sea coast near Suhar in the east.

“Ayn Bani Saidah is strategically located at a junction of routes connecting Bat in the south, Buraimi and Al-Ayn in the north, and the sea coast near Sohar in the east. Along this route, there are some major sites from the Umm an-Nar period. So we hoped that also our site would be in the same league”, explains Prof Bieliński.

The most notable find is a stone board game with marked fields and cup holes, consistent with games based on a similar design that has been found in India, Mesopotamia, and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

According to Dr Agnieszka Pieńkowska of the PCMA UW, the settlement is exceptional for including at least four towers: three round ones and an angular one. One of the round towers had not been visible on the surface despite its large size of up to 20 meters in diameter.

Dr Agnieszka, who is analyzing the Bronze Age remains within the project, said, “the function of these prominent structures present at many Umm an-Nar sites still needs to be explained”.

But new discoveries have also been made in other Bronze Age buildings.

“We finally found proof of copper working at the site, as well as some copper objects. This shows that our settlement participated in the lucrative copper trade for which Oman was famous at that time, with mentions of Omani copper present in the cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia”, says Prof. Bieliński.

But the most unexpected discovery is not related directly to economy or subsistence.

“In one of the rooms, we’ve found... a game-board!”, beams the project director.

The board is made of stone and has marked fields and cup-holes. Games based on similar principles were played during the Bronze Age in many economic and cultural centres of that age.

“Such finds are rare, but examples are known from an area stretching from India, through Mesopotamia even to the Eastern Mediterranean. The most famous example of a game-board based on a similar principle is the one from the graves from Ur”, explains the archaeologist.

Next year, the Omani-Polish team will continue work in the Qumayrah Valley, both in Ayn Bani Saidah and in Bilt, on the other end of the valley where further Umm an-Nar remains are located.

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