Friday, June 20, 2008
Big Game Hunter
By William Green/London
Irving Finkel's unruly beard is a living relic from another era, a
gleefully eccentric declaration that he cares little for the conventions
of modernity. Indeed, few people live in the past with such delight as
the 57-year-old Englishman, who has worked for the past three decades in
London's British Museum, where he is the assistant keeper in the
Department of the Middle East. At university, Finkel learned to read
cuneiform, the oldest known type of writing, in which wedge-shaped
symbols were pressed into clay with a reed. His Ph.D. thesis was on
ancient Mesopotamian exorcistic magic - the art of getting rid of
demons. If you want to know how men were cured of impotence in Babylon
thousands of years ago, Finkel can tell you the spell.
But no subject, however esoteric, has consumed him more than the history
of board games. At 11, Finkel became so captivated by a book about it
that he wrote to the author and went to stay with him. "He showed me his
huge game collection," says Finkel, "and it transformed my life." Finkel
was especially fascinated by what he learned of the Royal Game of Ur,
which was popular in Mesopotamia 4,600 years ago. As a boy, he made a
wooden replica of the game, but the rules had long been forgotten.
Today, he is the world's foremost expert on the game, and has solved the
mystery of how it was played.
Age-Old Obsession In our era of endless distractions, it's easy to
forget how important board games were to our ancestors. "There were no
entertainments for such a huge period of human existence," says Finkel.
"In that environment, games had a fantastically strong hold.
They reigned supreme." For centuries, even millenniums, the Royal Game
of Ur served as the PlayStation of its day.
Ur was a great Sumerian city in what is now southern Iraq. In the 1920s,
an Englishman named Sir Leonard Woolley excavated its royal tombs and
dug out five playing boards. The British Museum displays the finest of
them - a board that dates from 2,600 B.C. and that is beautifully
crafted in shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, a prized stone
imported at great cost from Afghanistan. This "was a state-of-the-art
piece of luxury," says Finkel, and it was buried with a princess to
entertain her in the afterworld.
Finkel insists that he knew from the age of 7 that he wanted to work at
the British Museum. In 1979, he was hired there as an expert on
cuneiform inscriptions, "fulfilling in one moment my life's ambition."
One of the joys of the job was that he gained access to the museum's
undisplayed stash of obscure treasures, including 130,000 cuneiform
tablets mostly acquired in the 19th century. Finkel says he has looked
at each of them twice. In the early 1980s, he found one with a unique
pattern on the back that resembled the squares of a game board.
Written in 177 B.C., the tablet was the work of a Babylonian scribe
copying from an earlier document. As Finkel translated the bewildering
blend of Babylonian and Sumerian words, he began to realize it was a
treatise on the Royal Game of Ur. The author speculated on the
astronomical significance of the 12 squares at the center of the
20-square board and explained how certain squares portended good
fortune: one square would bring "fine beer"; another would make a player
"powerful like a lion."
To Finkel's delight, the tablet also revealed a slew of long-lost
details about how the game was played - for example, how the two
opposing players used dice made from sheep and ox knucklebones, and what
numbers they had to roll before their pieces could be launched onto the
board and begin racing around it. According to the tablet, each player
had five pieces (though in Ur, they each had seven) and the winner was
the person who moved all of them off the board first.
Armed with this new insight, Finkel persuaded the museum to create and
sell a replica of the game. Not long afterward, chess legend Garry
Kasparov, along with his wife and bodyguard, visited the museum for a
private tour, and Finkel gave him a copy of the game. Kasparov's agent
later phoned to say the Russian master had spent an entire weekend in
Moscow playing it with the French chess champion. The Frenchman "had won
by something like 36 games to 29," recalls Finkel, "and was the new
world champion of the Royal Game of Ur."
Spread by traders, soldiers, missionaries and other pioneers of
globalization, Ur caught on as far afield as Iran, Syria, Egypt,
Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Crete. While religion has often been
"transmitted by violence," says Finkel, games transcend borders because
we share a craving for entertainment and competition. The Royal Game of
Ur jumped classes, too. In the British Museum, there is a 2,700-year-old
graffito version scratched onto a limestone gateway to a palace in
Khorsabad, once the capital of Assyria. Carved with a sharp object like
a dagger, this makeshift board would have been used by soldiers to
distract themselves from the tedium of guard duty.
But all games are vulnerable to the forces of creative destruction, and
this one was killed primarily by the arrival of backgammon - a more
sophisticated race game in which better players routinely win because
the balance between luck and skill has improved. And so it was that the
Royal Game of Ur died out nearly 2,000 years ago.
Or so Finkel thought until, to his astonishment, he stumbled upon a
remarkable photograph. Tucked away in an obscure journal published by a
museum in Israel, it showed a scratched-up wooden board game that had
belonged to a Jewish family in the Indian city of Cochin. Finkel
collects Indian games, but he had never seen anything like this in
India: the board had 20 squares - just like the Royal Game of Ur. He
knew that Cochin had, until recent decades, a vibrant community of
Jewish traders who came from Babylon more than 1,000 years ago. Was it
possible that the game had stayed alive in this insular community, while
elsewhere it had become extinct?
Staying Alive Most of Cochin's Jews had long since emigrated to Israel.
Finkel has a sister who lives in Jerusalem, so he dispatched her to a
kibbutz in the north where many of the Cochin Jews had settled. Finkel's
sister went door to door with a drawing he'd done of the board until she
found a retired schoolteacher in her 70s named Ruby Daniel, who
remembered playing the game as a child in Cochin.
Finkel flew to Israel, interviewed Daniel and played the game with her.
She told him it was a popular pastime for women and girls when she was
growing up, and that she had played it with her aunts on wooden boards,
using cowrie shells for dice. By then, each player had
12 pieces, and the placement of the 20 squares had shifted slightly.
But it was clearly the descendant of the game played in their ancestral
homeland of Babylon 4,600 years ago.
This pattern of what Finkel calls "spread and evolution and decline and
rescue and unstoppability" is at the heart of what fascinates him about
board games. Intermittently, governments have tried to curb
them: China outlawed mahjong during the Cultural Revolution, and the
Taliban threatened chess players with execution. But games defy control,
mutating and leaping boundaries with an inexorable life of their own.
Pachisi, says Finkel, was played in India for centuries, jumped to
Britain by 1875 and was repackaged there as ludo, which was exported
back to India around the 1960s: "Nowadays, Indian children play ludo
completely oblivious to the fact that it is a monstrous decomposition of
their own fantastic board game."
Monopoly has proved equally mutable. Invented by a Quaker woman a
century ago, it was intended "as propaganda against the wicked practice
of speculation in property," says Finkel, but it turned into a
blockbuster that "can rouse the most placid aunts to a state of virulent
materialism." Finkel is a huge fan, noting that the idea of renting out
a square was the last "momentous" innovation in board games. After a
lifetime of studying the greatest games, Monopoly is the one he plays
most with his five children. But true to the tradition of eternal flux,
the family has made some adjustments. "We have a rule in our house,"
says Finkel. "We all pick on one person and drive them into a fury,
which works very nicely. If they kick over the board and say, 'I'll
never play again,' that's perfection."
Learn more about the game of UR at
Play an online version of the game at
Buy the game at
Many of us geeks take great pride in the ability to recite the history of role-playing games based on the 20-sided die, but what about the history of the die itself? Apparently it predates the original Dungeons and Dragons by almost two millenia.
Christie's, auctioneer to the rich and famous, sold a glass d20 from Roman times. It was included in a collection of other antiquities that sold in 2003. The markings on the die don't appear to be either Arabic or Roman numerals, but it's probably a safe bet that it was used in a game of chance. As the auction catalog notes that several polyhedral dice are known from the Roman era, but remarks, " Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used."
I wonder - how do you say "critical hit" in Latin? (Ed. note: "maxima plaga")
The seller acquired this die from his father, who picked it up in the 1920s in Egypt. Sounds like the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie, doesn't it?
(Thanks to Marty for the pointer. Photo from Christie's web site.)
Retirado de http://blog.wired.com/geekdad/2008/06/what-version-of.html
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The Dream : A Rebus
by Kim Palmer
In 1988, Pagoda Books (in the UK) and Salem House (in the US) published a little puzzle book called "THE DREAM: A rebus, fully illustrated", by Kim Palmer. Except for a short preface, the book consisted of a series of pictures, forming an elaborate rebus. The inside jacket of the book announced that a prize (an attractive lapel pin) would be awarded to every person who deciphered the puzzle and submitted a correct solution along with a corner of the jacket as proof of purchase.
I bought a copy of the book, and worked on it for months, penciling in my guesses, and struggling to figure out some of the more obscure pictures. I pestered my friends to help me, and in some cases, they were able to figure out parts of the puzzle that I could not decipher. At some point, in desperation, I even posted a message on the Internet, asking for help, but got no answers. After working out about 60% or 70% of the text, we got no further and the remainder of the text remained wrapped in obscurity. Several years later, I opened the book again, decided I was never going to be able to finish it, and passed it on to a friend.
In January, 2005, I received a charming letter from Chiara Lagani, a dramaturgist in Italy, who adapts, rewrites, and creates productions for a theater company. She was planning an event that involved rebuses (in Italian!) but had stumbled across "The Dream", and thought that she might like to include some of that work in her presentation. She had managed to decipher several of the first pages on her own, and then had gotten stuck.
Somehow, an Internet search she made turned up the posting I had made back in 1988 (I have not been able to locate this message myself!). So when she wrote to me, she had some hope that I'd had enough time to work out the solution! I had to confess that I had given up, and given away the book, and forgotten everything. But I ordered another copy of the book from Amazon, (for $2.00!) and began working my way back; in a month, it seemed like I'd recovered everything I had the first time; for a few more months, I was able to make excruciatingly slow progress. I begged for help from friends, and from time to time one more word or phrase would pop out, but there followed months of no further insight.
The solution was only completed due to the help of friends, and a few total strangers who somehow had also been bitten with the bug, and had been working independently toward the same goal.
Thanks to my friend Deb Nigra, who suffered with me through the first attempt at a translation, back in the Stone Age of 1988!
Hats off to my friend Jeff Borggaard, for several productive sessions which gained us "F-STOP" and "TOOL", "LONG" and "GAMAY".
Thanks to my friend and former office mate Greg Hood, who came up with "WEAVER DEW TEE"! (Please let me know when Stu has vacated my chair so that I can come back!)
Thanks to Internet correspondent Chris Rubeo, who corrected "MAY IBIZA ARAB ALICE" to "MAY IBIZA MOOR ALICE", and corrected "INTERN ASH SHEAR OWL" to "INTERN ASH SHORN OWL".
A very humble thanks to Lois McCormack, who independently worked out most of the puzzle, (although, she said, that at one point the process had become so painful that she hid the book in her attic) and cleared up words, phrases, and entire sentences on pages 14, 22, 23, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 43, after I had gotten into the most dreadful mental deadlock.
After a little thought and consultation, Lois sent even more information that cleared up pages 26 and 27, and 33, and pretty much ended the job.
Thanks to Teresa Di Staso who wrote in February 2007, confessing that she had also been working on the puzzle, off and on since 1988. She supplied some alternate readings of lines that made more sense. In particular, I was unfamiliar with "globe artichoke", and the best I had come up with was "hearts" (from artichoke hearts) where "globe" was surely intended. Where I had "DISH EWES" she suggested the more sensible "PROBE LAMBS". Where I had the clumsy "PLACE CARDINAL SIGNS" she had "SET TIT WRITE", and my "SHEET TACK KIT TRIP" was bettered by "SHEET TWO KIT TOUR". The Humpty Dumpty figure I interpreted as "EGG" but she suggested "RHYME", which I'm not completely sure about, yet it makes the more pleasing "APE RHYME X SAMPLE" instead of "APE EGG X SAMPLE". And finally, she asks, what is going on with the mysterious "pyrex plate"? I too remain mystified by that phrase, and yet nothing else comes to mind.
Thanks, of course, to Chiara Lagani, for causing all this trouble!
These new breakthroughs have answered the final clues; while some of the answers may seem a bit fanciful or stretched, and there are a few clues for which alternate readings exist, the entire narrative is in place and makes sense.
A GRATE TAIL FOUR HOUR THYME
A Great Tale For Our Time.
DOUGHNUT LETTER CONE NUN DRUM BEET U.
Do not let a conundrum beat you.
THIRD EEL LIGHT FULL TAIL OVEN ALLEY
The delightful tale of an alli-(gator)
GATE OAR HOOF HOUND ASS SOUP HERB WEIGHT TUBE
(alli)-gator who found a superb way to b-(ring)
RING PEAS SAND CENTS TWO HOUR GLOBE (a kind of artichoke) (TRAFFIC STOP)
(b)-ring peace and sense to our heart.
LAST MARCH CHIDE DAD REAM WITCH
Last March I had a dream which
EYE CAN KNOT PERM MITT MICE ELF TWIG GNAW (UPRAISED HAND)
I cannot permit myself to ignore.
INN A PHAROAH FUND DISC COVERED PLACE CLOSE TWO
In a faroff undiscovered place close to
HORSE TRAIL EAR MEN KNEE CRETE JAWS DICE/DIX (French "10")
Australia many creatures de-(cided)
SIDE HEAD TWO DISCUS HUMOR KNIT
(de)-cided to discuss humanit-(ty)
TEA HAND REEL LATE HEAD PROBE LAMBS (FINISH FLAG)
(humani)-ty and related problems.
SEAL IRON TOLL DOVER CAT ASS TROPHY HAT CHURN
Sea lion told of a catastrophe at Chern-(obyl)
KNOB BILL DASH APE EGG/RHYME X SAMPLE OVEN
(Chern)-obyl - a big/prime example of a(n)
KNEAD FOUR GRATER SAFE TEE (BUS STOP SIGN)
need for greater safety.
ANT ELOPE SPOKE COUGH POP YULE
Antelope spoke of popul-(ation)
ASIAN CRY SEA SAND CHILLED WREN GO
(popul)-ation crisis and children go-(ing)
WING HUN GRIEF FOUR DAZE SAND DAYS (CAMERA F-STOP)
(go)-ing hungry for days and days.
I SEE LEA TELL PIECE SAW LOVE HIP
I see little peace or love hip-(popotami)
POPE POT TAME EYE COMB PLANED (POLICEMAN SIGNALING STOP)
WEAVER DEW T(-square) TWO SET TIT
We've a duty to set it
WRITE SEDAN ALLEY GATE ORE (FLAGMAN SIGNALLING STOP)
right, said an alligator.
LETTUCE SCENTER MESS AGE HONOR PIE REX PLAY
Let us send a message on a pyrex pla-(te)
TANNED LET TEAT SAIL TWO C HONOR WAVE (MUSICAL STOP)
(pla)-te and let it sail to sea on a wave.
WHEEL WEIGHT HAND FINE DOUBT HOOK
We'll wait and find out who
COMBS STACK CROSS SITAR CITIES FLOAT TING (STOP WATCH)
comes across it as it is floating.
KNOT LONG AFT TERRACE MAUL KID K
Not long after, a small kid c-(ame)
MAE CROSS SIT BUYER BEECH (MORSE CODE S-T-O-P)
(c)-ame across it by a beach.
SHEET TWO KIT TOUR PEAR RENTS HOOP ROME
She took it to her parents who prom-(ise)
MISS DATE RIGHT TWO INTERN ASH SHORN OWL FIG HERS (STOP BUTTON)
(pro-)mised they'd write to international figures.
BEE FOUR TOOL LONG GAMAY JURY VENT
Before too long, a major event
TOFFEE NOAH MOUSE IMP PORT TENTS SOCK HERD (TYPEWRITER PERIOD KEY)
of enormous importance occurred.
WORLD RULERS UNIVERSE AWL LEAP PROP
World rulers universally prop-(ose)
POSED TWO MEAT TIN ORDER TWO
(pro-)posed to meet in order to
IMP ROOF HOUR PLAN NET
improve our planet
FOUR COMB MING GENERATIONS (ARM SIGNALS SPELLING S-T-O-P)
for coming generations.
B LEAF FIT TORE KNOT TIN
Believe it or not, in n(o)
O THYME THERMOS TAM MAIZE SING REVOLUTION
(n)o time, the most amazing revolution-(s)
SIN WORLD CLIMB EIGHT A ROSE
(revolution)-s in world climate arose
A LASS BUTTER DREAM (ORGAN STOP)
alas but a dream.
MAY IBIZA MOOR ALICE
Maybe the moral is:
SIEVE YOU AIM TWO IMP PRESS POLLY
if you aim to impress poli-(ticians)
TITIANS U LAUGHTER RIGHT TOOTH
(poli)-ticians, you'll have to write to th-(em)
HEM EWES SINGER RAY BUS (FINISH LINE)
(t)-hem using a rebus.
THISTLE A MUSE YEW FOUR SHORE
This'll amuse you for sure.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Um Jogo de Alquerque no quotidiano da Praça de Almeida e os Jogos do Moinho em Castelo Mendo
|Castelo Mendo, Jogo do Moinho (58X40cm), época medieval. Jogo inscrito numa pedra encontrada na Devesa, exterior da cerca.|
As actividades lúdicas sempre foram praticadas pelo ser humano, motivo pelo qual vemos inúmeros vestígios disseminados pelo espaço humanizado. É certo que na actualidade há uma especificidade tecnológica que nos faz esquecer que, no passado recente, as actividades lúdicas desenvolvidas representavam a modernidade conceitual do lazer. É nesse contexto que a cultura ancestral de intercâmbio lúdico entre dois seres humanos se desenvolve, desde a mais tenra idade até ser adulto.
Há jogos inerenteS aos estádios evolutivos, aos ciclos sociais, aos sexos, às actividades e sectores tradicionais, jogos intemporais que se perpetuam local e regionalmente, que por razões culturais se prolongam no colectivo atravessado os limites geográficos da criação, ou outros que crescem e desenvolvem, mas também perecem de forma efémera, dos quais o rasto se diluiu na poeira da Humanidade. Por vezes há actividades lúdicas que surgem num determinado local, por mero acaso, fruto de um sem número de factores, sem sabermos os motivos das suas funções ou razão de ser.
No início começam por ser estranhas ao meio, passando a inovadoras de tal forma que rapidamente se enraízam no seio local, abraçadas como se tradicionais fossem e sem memória da sua existência ancestral. Perduram por vontade própria da sociedade que as pratica, por prazer ou negócio, lícito ou ilícito, mais por encanto, mais por um passatempo que os ajude a desbravar o seu ócio temporal.
É precisamente sob esse aspecto que vamos analisar a existência de dois tabuleiros do jogo do alquerque no quotidiano da Praça militarizada de Almeida e de dois jogos do moinho existente num monólito e num afloramento em Castelo Mendo.
Foi por volta de 1994 que encontrei os jogos do alquerque na Sala da Guarda, lateral esquerdo das Portas interiores de Santo António, no reduto fortificado da Praça de Almeida. Estão incisos no chão e no banco conversadeira do designado Quarto do Sargento da Guarda. O jogo em causa está integrado no grupo dos jogos de interior e foi, sem dúvida alguma, praticado por quem tinha acesso ao local; isto é, os militares que se encontravam na Praça ou, e quanto a nós, pelos presos políticos que aí se encontravam no período designado de Guerras Civis liberais (1832-1834). Durante esses fatídicos anos alguns dos equipamentos militares, da Praça de Almeida, foram utilizados como prisões políticas prendendo-se um conjunto de presos que divergiam ideologicamente do regime vigente, de cariz absolutista.
Nos outros espaços destinados a prisões e a quartéis não encontramos mais nenhum testemunho destinado ao lúdico, sendo, até ao presente, os dois tabuleiros do jogo do alquerque os únicos exemplares.
Os jogos apresentam-se integrados na tipologia do jogo do alquerque dos doze, e tem as seguintes características:
Descrição – jogo completo, o tabuleiro é composto por um rectângulo de onde saem duas asas, ou aletas, onde o jogador colava as suas pedras para iniciar o jogo. Cronologicamente situamos os tabuleiros no séc. XIX. Matéria – inscrição em granito.
Exemplares deste jogo localizam-se, na Fonte das Bicas e na Igreja de Nossa Sr.ª do Soveral, em Borba, na Domus Municipalis, em Bragança, no Paço de D. Dinis, em Estremoz, para além de outras localidades, quer em Portugal quer em Espanha.
Também em Castelo Mendo encontramos dois tabuleiros lúdicos incisos num afloramento granítico e num monólito, e que representam o Jogo do Moinho.
O mais antigo é o que se localiza no afloramento, na antiga cerca medieval de D. Sancho, bem perto da igreja de Stª Maria do Castelo. Já apresenta sinais de muito desgaste, pois está em local de passagem, sendo apenas visível os quadrados laterais direito. A informação foi-nos fornecida por Rosa Martinho Ramos, em Setembro de 2006, quando fotografávamos o outro tabuleiro existente na povoação.
O jogo apresenta, na sua origem, três quadrados inscritos que apresentam, em cada um dos lados, um traço perpendicular e não ultrapassa os limites, interior e exterior, dos rectângulos.
Apontamos a sua cronologia para um período medieval, encontrando-se inciso num afloramento granítico. Há diversos exemplos em território peninsular, considerando este tabuleiro bastante simples e sem qualquer particularidade.
O outro tabuleiro do jogo do moinho foi encontrado fora da cerca medieval, no lugar chamado da Devesa e foi transferido, por mim e por Américo Morgado, para a porta do Museu Local em 1999, quando desenvolvi o referido projecto museológico como salvaguarda da memória local, no âmbito da medida de salvaguarda e protecção, pois já estava descontextualizado do seu local de origem. O tabuleiro está completo.
Encontramos um tabuleiro do jogo do moinho com as mesmas características do de Castelo Mendo na Vidigueira, com uma concavidade no centro do tabuleiro, apesar dos materiais serem completamente diferentes, pois o da Beira é inscrito em granito e o do Alentejo é em argila, podendo este ser um tabuleiro de transporte, tal como se deduz pelas reduzidas dimensões do mesmo (12X8.5cm).
No contexto regional encontramos um jogo do moinho em Longroiva, proveniente do interior do castelo, e referenciado no imprescindível catálogo Pedras que Jogam.