What games did people play in ancient Egypt?
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Egyptian Games

Knucklebones
Egyptian knucklebones

January 2017 - The games people played in ancient Egypt were a lot like some games people still play today. Some Egyptian games were traditional African games. The Egyptians learned other games from their West Asian neighbors. People in ancient Egypt played games with pieces like checkers or mancala or senet.

Egyptian game pieces
Egyptian game pieces

Egyptian kids played games like jacks, using animal knucklebones or small stones. (Knucklebones are really the ankle bones of sheep). Sometimes they made artificial knucklebones out of clay. They played games with dice, too.

Dice
dice (Louvre Museum)

Egyptian kids also had toys to play with. They had clay rattles and little animals and people shaped out of clay. If you could afford them, you could also get wooden toys. Some wooden toys had moving parts, like a hippopotamus with jaws that could open and close.

wooden pull toy of woman kneeling before a grindstone
Pull toy of woman grinding grain

This one has a woman grinding grain: you pull the string to make her move the grinding stone back and forth. The fanciest dolls were made of cloth, and stuffed with papyrus reeds.

one boy sits on another one's head: limestone carving
Boys wrestling (ca. 2500 BC)
Tomb of Nykauinpu, at Giza
Now in the Oriental Institute, Chicago

Ancient Egyptian boys and girls were outside nearly all the time, because their houses were small, dark, and crowded. They liked to play running and jumping games. Boys and girls loved to swim in the river to cool off and get clean; they knew how to swim the breast stroke and the crawl stroke.

Pressing Grapes Dance
Ancient Egyptian girls circle dance
From the tomb of Mereruka (Old Kingdom, ca. 2200 BC)

They also liked to wrestle and box, and dance in circles. On the right, the two boys are wrestling. One boy is sitting on the other boy's head. The girls called one dance "pressing the grapes"; that's the dance in the picture to the left. Kids made balls out of leather or woven papyrus and stuffed their balls with straw or (once horses came to Egypt) horsehair, to play ball games like juggling.

Learn by doing: playing African games

More about dice
More about swimming
More about African games

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Egyptian games:

King Tut's Game Board, by Leona Ellerby (1980). A story for kids.

Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt, by Wolfgang Decker (1992). Out of print.

Senet, Gaming With the Gods: The Game of Senet and Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs, by P. Picione (2004).

More about ancient Egypt
More about African games
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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