Astragali, the Ubiquitous Gaming Pieces

Reviews and Reports

By: Jeremiah Dandoy

Originally Published in 1996

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The astragalus, or talus, is a uniquely shaped, compact bone (Fig. 2) found in virtually every mammal including humans. It is part of the hind leg in four-footed mammals and part of the heel complex in two-legged mammals (Fig. 3). In the Bovid family, the six-sided rectangular shape of the astragalus makes it well suited as a throwing or shooting piece. The astragals in sheep, goats, and most deer is about twice the size of modern dice and of the “shooter” I used in my tenure as a marble player. It is the perfect size and weight to be handled by men and boys in the numerous games which developed over the millennia. According to my sources, credited at the end of this article, women and girls almost never play games with these pieces. I call these astragali gaming pieces ubiquitous because they occur over a wide spatial and temporal continuum. For example, Patty Jo Watson (1979) says that they are found in sites in northern Iraq as early as 7000 years ago and that astragali games are still being played in Iran. R. Barry Lewis (1988) discusses their appearance in the New World in the 2nd millennium A.D. at sites in the Ohio and Mississippi river volleys and their use today by the Papago Indians in Arizona. Most, if not all, of the astragali recovered in the Near East and used for gaming pieces came from domestic sheep or goat, while those in the U.S. came primarily from deer and, less frequently, from elk and bison. These are the animals one would expect, given the disparate geographic locations and time periods. Lewis mentions the association of astragali with burials, primarily of children and adolescents; the pieces have been found inside bowls and jars in graves. The astragali found in children’s graves came from smaller ani-mals (which I can only assume means smaller deer rather than other small species). Both Watson and Lewis comment on the grinding and modification of many of the bones. Many of those found at the site of Gordion in Turkey (see below and box on the Gordian Project) were also modified (Fig. 4). In his article on games from Turkey (1960), Brewster mentions two that are played by boys using astragali. One of these is also played in Europe using the astragali of sheep. He also refers to lead-filled astragali used as throwing pieces. Musa Baran (1974) refers to depictions of astragali as playing pieces in an 8th century B.C.E. relief found at Carchemish in Turkey.


At Gordian we have found astragals throughout the site and in all time periods. Many of these, however, were simply associated with animals used as food or for other purposes. I identified astragali as gaming pieces or ornamen­tation when they met one or more of the following criteria: modification, appearance in groupings larger than those of astragali in food remains, appear­ance with human remains in what appeared to be ceremonial graves or other burials, or presence in quantities not associated with the bones of other mam­mals including man. The more technical details of my findings, any cultural implications of modification, and the use of astragali as ornamentation must wait until I have more time to complete an analysis. Astragali gaming pieces were discovered from Late Bronze Age Gordian through the Medieval period. The bulk came from the Early Iron Age (circa 1100-950 B.C.) through the Late Phrygian period (circa 500-300 B..). During the first 25 years of the modern excavations, several caches of astragali were uncovered. Five hundred and six were found in Tumulus P, which was a burial mound for a child (DeVries 1980; Young 1981). Many of these were painted or dyed red and pierced; they may have been used for orna­mentation. DeVries also refers to 15 or 16 found in a mug on the floor of Megaron 3. Four hundred and ninety-four astragali were found in a pot on the floor of Megaron 1, others in a pot on the floor of Megaron 2 (Sams 1994). These floors belong to Gordion’s destruction level (circa 700 B..); most of the astragali found there were burned, but not to a very high temperature since they were black, not white. Since the excavation has been under Mary Voigt’s direction, some small groupings and many modified single astragali bones have been found, a total of 107 astragali altogether. I believe the majority of these, drilled and either ground or filled with a metal (Fig. 5a, b), were used as gaming pieces. My informants tell me that today in the Gordian area people still grind and drill the astragali and fill them with lead to make them heavier and more accu­rate as “shooters” Csaka in Turkish). Some of Gordion’s astragals are inscribed. Lynn Roller (1987) men­tions two with the inscriptions “Nike” and “Ni” which she presumes refer to the goddess Nike and a wish for victory (Fig. 6). That would be appropriate for a gaming piece. She also refers to others with heroic references or personal names which again seem appropriate for prized (saka. Rodney Young (1962) mentions astragali with the inscriptions “Hector” and “Achilles” (Fig. 8a), and a more recent find (1988) has the inscription “Hera” (Fig. 8b).


Now that we have the archaeological background under our belts, let’s get to the games. I will describe four. The first is primarily a children’s game, and the remainder are played by both men and boys. I have tried my hand at each of them.

Game One: Asik Oyunu (The Knucklebone Game)

This children’s game was taught to me by Mevhibe Hocaoglu. It requires four or more players and is supposed to demonstrate a hierarchical social system. Each of the four sides of the astragalus is given a name. The dor­sal is the slave or the lowest rank, the plantar is the servant or the next lowest, the medial is the vizier (chief advisor to the Sultan), and the lateral is the King or Sultan. Supposedly these rankings correlate with how frequently each side comes up (most to least frequent) when the astragalus is thrown randomly. At the start each player tosses the astragalus to determine which per­sonage he will be—as designated by the side that faces upward. He then takes a predesignated token (usually a pebble, stick, or something else near at hand) representing that personage. The game cannot begin until there is a Sultan or King, a Vizier, and at least one slave. At the start the last person to throw and get the King side up becomes the King. The same is true for the Vizier since there can be only one of each of these in the game. There can be as many ser­vants and slaves as there are players, minus two. Once all the players have taken a token representing one of the sides, the game can begin. The Vizier holds a ruler or similar instrument to ‘inflict punishment. The King decrees the punishment. Servants do not receive pun­ishment, only slaves do. The King and the Vizier do not roll the bones while they hold those positions. To begin, the person whose turn was next rolls the astragalus and becomes whatever the side facing upward indicates. If it is a slave, the King tells the Vizier what punishment to give out: a slap with the flat side of the ruler to the hand or other extremity, a slap with the edge, a hard slap, a soft slap, etc. It is up to the imagination of the current king to devise the stroke and its placement. However, if the roll comes up King or Vizier, the roller replaces the current incumbent. If the roll represents a servant, the roller is absolved of punishment. In any event the turn passes to the next in line. The game stops at a predetermined time, whenever all the players chose to stop, or whenever there are less than four players remaining. Players can drop out at any time along the way.

Game Two: Cizgili (Marked With Lines, Ruled)

In this game the saka are highly prized and very personal. Each person has one or more favorites which may be polished and/or drilled and filled with metal and/or ground with soft stone or fired brick, generally on the plantar and dorsal sides. Each side of the piece is given a name. The dorsal is cik (the hollow side of the knucklebone), the plantar is tök (meaning lost), the medial is tala (taking all of it), and the lateral is kazak (a Cossack or a despotic husband). .aka are used in this and the remainder of the games described. The order of play and the names for the four sides are the same in all. Any number of players can participate, with as many astragali as they wish. A circle is drawn in the dirt large enough to hold all of the astragali, which are stood on end (not on one of the four sides) in a straight line through a diameter of the circle (Fig. 9). A space, perhaps 10 centimeters or so, must exist between each end of the line of astragali and the perimeter of the circle. A line is drawn about 100-120 centimeters outside the circle and parallel to the line of the astragal A similar line is drawn on the opposite side of the circle. Only the plantar and dorsal sides of the pieces count in this game. In order to determine who goes first, each player throws his ‘aka to see which side lands face up. After all players have thrown, the last one to tie the previous throw goes first, with the rest following in rotation. If only two are playing and there is no tie, the first one throwing either the plantar or dorsal side up begins the game. The player positions himself just outside one of the lines. Standing on one foot, he leans in as far as he can towards the circle and, holding his saka between thumb and first finger, throws or shoots it at the line of standing astragali (Fig. 10). The aim is to knock one or more of these out of the circle and take the piece. If none are knocked out of the circle, the astragali moved are set back in place and the play rotates. If one or more are knocked out of the circle, the player continues to shoot or throw from where one of them landed. He again stands on one foot and leans as close as he can toward the line of remaining pieces. The player continues until he knocks no more out or until all are knocked out. The game is over when no more astragali remain in the circle. The winner is the one with the greatest number of astragali in his pos­session.

Game Three: Uzun Tala (Long Distance Throw to Take All of It)

This game is played mostly by boys and any number may play. There is no circle but the astragali (any number) are placed in a line, each standing on end. The thrower or shooter stands behind a line drawn in the dirt 1 to 2 meters from the line of astragali and parallel to it. The distance depends upon the age of the boys playing the game. The older the boys the further they stand from the line of astragali. There are two stages in this game. In stage one the thrower shoots his saka at the astragals and tries to hit one or more and knock them over. If he knocks any over and his saka lands Bala (medial) side up, he takes all the pieces. If he misses or his saka lands with any of the other three sides up, he loses and the next player tries his luck. When one player has all the pieces, stage two begins. In stage two the player with all the astragali throws them and his saka up in the air as you would throw jacks. He takes all of those that land with the same side up as his saka (Fig. 11). If his ‘aka lands Bala or kazak side up, he loses his turn. If and when none of the astragali land with the same side up as his saka he also loses his turn. When all the astragali are off the playing surface, i.e. in the players’ possession, the player with the fewest astragals places his back in the original line and the other players) place the same number in the original line and play continues until (1) one player has possession of all the astragali, (2) an agreed upon ending time, or (3) forever.

Game Four: Humbali (Lost)

As in Games Two and Three, any number can play. The second par­allel line is drawn the same distance from the line of the astragali as in Game Three. It should be noted that the players, by mutual consent, can change any of the distances mentioned in Games Two through Four. Any odd number of astragali are placed in a line with the middle one (generally a larger one of the same species and called the Humbali) placed on end. The others are placed with either their medial or lateral side up, but they must be all placed the same way. The thrower tries to hit the middle astragalus and knock it at least five feet (using his feet as the measurement). If he is suc­cessful, he takes all of the astragali and wins the game. If he is not, he must add one of his own astragali to the line and continue. Astragali must be added alternately to each side to keep the line relatively balanced. If he hits the mid­dle astragalus but doesn’t knock it at least five feet, the turn passes to the next thrower. In this game, as well as some of the others, it may be customary for the winner to keep permanently all of the astragali that he accumulates in a game. This can and has caused some hard feelings, according to my infor­mants. I came away from this archaeological and ethnographic research with two thoughts reinforced. The first is my belief, gained through 30 years of travel­ing this world, that there are more similarities than dif­ferences among people today, and between people of today and yesterday, expressed in both their material culture and their ethos. The second is that the mun­dane, often overlooked, things we find around us can provide as much, or more, pleasure than the newest manufactured delight. Not only do archaeologists get to play in the dirt, they can dig up free games and play them. Can life get any better than this? Jeremiah Danday spent The past two summers (1994, 1995) at Gordian, Turkey, working on The faunal material. He currently works wiBh the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Zooarchaeology and Archaeobotany.


An article by Rodney S. Young (1962) aroused my curiosity about astragali (asik in Turkish) as gaming pieces and dice. Heartfelt thanks go to my friends and informants Mevhibe Hocaoglu, Ekrem Belker, Isak Kocada, and Renzi Yilmaz, and to ethnographer and translator Aye Gürsan-Salzmann.

Cite This Article

Dandoy, Jeremiah. "Astragali, the Ubiquitous Gaming Pieces." Expedition Magazine 38, no. 1 (March, 1996): -. Accessed May 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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