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A wall painting from the 3300-year-old tomb of Queen Nefertari shows her playing senet against an invisible opponent.

The Yorck Project/WikiCommons

Is this the original board game of death?

Ancient Egyptians took their board games seriously. The backgammonlike senet started out as a mere pastime, but over nearly 2 millennia it evolved into a game with deep links to the afterlife, played on a board that represented the underworld. Now, a version of the game sitting in a California museum might reveal when this dramatic transformation took place.

Senet probably wasn’t the world’s first board game, but it was one of the first to become a smash hit. It seems to have risen to popularity in all tiers of Egyptian society about 5000 years ago—and was still being enjoyed by Egyptians 2500 years later.

From snippets of ancient texts, Egyptologists suspect senet was played by two competitors, each with perhaps five pawns that were placed on a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows of 10. Players threw an ancient equivalent of gaming dice to establish how many squares to move one of their pawns on a given turn. The pawns traveled right along the upper row, then left along the middle row, and right along the lower row to reach the finish square (number 30) in the bottom right corner of the board.

Squares 26 to 29 were decorated with symbols and seem to have held particular significance—perhaps a little like the “miss a turn” or “roll a six” square on some modern game boards. The first player to move all five of their pawns to the finish won.

There is no evidence that senet was anything other than a form of entertainment at the time of its invention. But by about 4300 years ago, Egyptian tomb art began to depict the tomb’s dead inhabitant playing senet against living friends and relatives. Texts from the time suggest the game had begun to be seen as a conduit through which the dead could communicate with the living.

The Rosicrucian senet board. The finish (square 30) is in the top left. Square 27 is marked by three zigzag lines, a water symbol.

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

Over the next millennium, Egyptian texts came to describe the game as reflecting the movement of the soul through the Egyptian realm of the dead—called Duat—and toward the afterlife. And by about 3300 years ago, the game board itself had changed. In place of three simple vertical lines on square 28 of early senet boards, for example, some now had three hieroglyphic birds that Egyptians used to symbolize the soul. The board retained this symbolism for another 800 years, until the game fell out of fashion.

A senet board in the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum might show the earliest stages in this redesign. The board lacks the hieroglyphics symbolizing the soul, but square 27—which in earlier boards featured a simple X—now carries a hieroglyphic symbol for water. This is thought by archaeologists to indicate some sort of lake or river the Egyptians believed the soul encountered on its journey through Duat.

“It may be one of the first times that this aspect of the journey through the afterlife is visually rendered on the board,” says Walter Crist, an archaeologist at Maastricht University who describes the Rosicrucian board in a new paper in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.

The age and archaeological context of the Rosicrucian board are unclear—the artifact may have been bought on the antiquities market in the 19th century. But it has an unusual reverse layout, with the “start” square in the bottom where the “finish” square usually is. Crist says this style is unique to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, between 4000 and 3700 years ago. Given this unusual layout, and the not fully religious but not fully secular symbols on squares 26 to 29, Crist believes the Rosicrucian board is about 3500 years old.

Senet boards may have begun to take on religious overtones at least 400 years earlier, according to ancient Egyptian texts. The slow transformation from secular to religious board fits with what we know of the evolution of games, which tend to exhibit long periods of stasis and sudden pulses of rapid change, perhaps over just a few decades, says Jelmer Eerkens, an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis. “This is unlike what we expect for other kinds of technologies,” Eerkens says. Cookery pot designs, for instance, evolve more gradually and steadily, he says.

Eerkens’s research suggests the Rosicrucian board is a rare find because it appears to chronicle this late-stage rapid change in progress. It may capture the fleeting moment that the senet board’s design first began to betray its role as the original game of death.