Museum in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo Presents for the First Time Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Board, Gambling Games

An ancient board game found in archaeological excavations in Northern Bulgaria. It is only one of the numerous board game artifacts displayed for the first time in a unique exhibit by the Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

An ancient board game found in archaeological excavations in Northern Bulgaria. It is only one of the numerous board game artifacts displayed for the first time in a unique exhibit by the Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

A unique exhibition presenting for the first time prehistoric, ancient, and medieval board and gambling games found in archaeological excavations in Central Northern Bulgaria has been opened by the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Veliko Tarnovo.

The exhibition entitled “Unknown Heritage” shows astragals, pieces, dices, and game boards discovered in archaeological excavations in the District of Veliko Tarnovo, which date back to different time periods, from the Chalcolitic (also Aeneolithic or Copper Age) until the Middle Ages.

A 5-minute 3D animation video presents the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval board games in use.

“The desire for games and entertainment emerged as early as the dawn of human civilization, and reflects in its own way not just the occupational but also the spiritual, cultural, and even aesthetic needs of the people,” explains the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History in a statement.

It adds that the earliest expressions of the desire for entertainment came down to ritual dances, races, wrestling, archery, and other sports or military games and exercises.

Games requiring ingenuity and resourcefulness, and especially games based on chance and luck were especially popular,” says the Museum.

The ancient board game items displayed in the new exhibit include astragals, also known as knucklebones, which were derived from the carcasses of domesticated livestock such as goats or sheep, and were additionally polished and processed. They were used for different games involving tossing and arrangement as early as the Chalcolithic period.

Astragals, or knucklebones from domestic livestock, were used to play popular board games in prehistoric and ancient times in today's Northern Bulgaria. These knuckebones have been found in a Chalcolithic mound in the town of Petko Karavelovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Astragals, or knucklebones from domestic livestock, were used to play popular board games in prehistoric and ancient times in today’s Northern Bulgaria. These knuckebones have been found in a Chalcolithic mound in the town of Petko Karavelovo. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

The find on display is from the Chalcolithic mound discovered near the town of Petko Karavelovo, and consists of 66 knucklebones, which have holes in the middle, and have been processed so that they would fit together in couples. The Bulgarian archaeologists believe that they were used either for games, or for clairvoyance.

The earliest game presented in the Veliko Tarnovo exhibit is more than 6,000 years old: the knucklebones from the Chalcolithic mound in Petko Karavelovo are dated to 4,400-4,200 BC.

“The oldest [board game] items found in the Veliko Tarnovo region are from the Chalcolithic. These are the knucklebones. We have also displayed items from period of Ancient Rome, as well as from the Middle Ages, from the period of the Second Bulgarian Empire,” explains Ivan Tsarov, Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio.

“As in any gambling game, there was cheating in the ancient games as well. For example, a dice from the Roman period has lead placed inside it so that it always falls on a certain side, which, of course, is known to the person who forged it. Cheating has always gone with gambling,” he adds.

Knucklebones were also used for playing the Antiquity period, and so were dices and board pieces. Both the soldiers and the general population, and the aristocracy used them for entertainment.

“The ancient dices were made of bones, wood, stone, or metal. Two types of [ancient] dice games are known – with a cup or on a board. The six-sided dice with the numbers from 1 to 6 was widespread but dices with two round sides and figures written on the other four were also used. Dice entertainment, even though it had to do with gambling, was considered more of a game of luck, fortuity, and chance. Sometimes the dices were also used for clairvoyance or fortunetelling,” explains the Veliko Tarnovo Museum.

Games with pieces moving on a board were also popular in ancient times. They were made of stone, bones, wood, or glass. Even though the rules of the ancient board games are unknown, they seem similar to modern-day chess, draughts, backgammon, or Parcheesi.

As part of its special exhibit, the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History has put on display dices and board pieces found in the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum.

“This find from the 2nd-3rd century AD includes several round board pieces, dices with the figures from 1 to 6, as well as a hollow artifact with the form of a parallelepiped decorated with circles. All of these items are made of bones, with the pieces being well polished,” explains the Museum.

It also explains that during the Middle Ages the entertainment games for the aristocracy were elaborate and decorated, while the populace used any kind of items in their board games.

The people in the Middle Ages usually made a brick or tile into a board, and used fragments of broken ceramic vessels as pieces. These kinds of board game pieces have been found on the Tsarevets Hill, one of the two main fortified hills of Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo), capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185-1396 AD.

The games with astragals, or knucklebones, in which whoever managed to toss them into a certain combination, or standing on their side, was the winner, were also popular in medieval Bulgaria.

“The finds and depictions of prehistoric, ancient, and medieval game artifacts complete the picture of the everyday life [in those periods], and provide curious knowledge about the entertainment activities and preferences of the people in difference ages,” concludes the statement of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History regarding its new exhibition.

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the “Unknown Heritage” exhibit of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the

Ancient game board pieces displayed in the “Unknown Heritage” exhibit of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Background Infonotes:

Nicopolis ad Istrum (also known as Ulpia Nicopolis ad Istrum) was an Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city (not to be confused with Nicopolis Ad Nestum in today’s Southwest Bulgaria).

Its ruins are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Its name means “Victory City on the Danube River”. It was founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacian tribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) on a plateau on the left bank of the Rositsa River. This is where the two main roads of the Danubian Roman provinces intersected – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

(Ulpia) Nicopolis ad Istrum was first part of the Roman province of Thrace but after 193 AD it was made part of the province of Moesia Inferior. Nicopolis ad Istrum flourished in the 2nd-3rd century, during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD). It further developed as major urban center after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Its organization was similar to that of Roman cities in Thrace and Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon. It was ruled by a council of archons, a city council and an assembly, with local priests worshipping Ancient Roman and Greek deities such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithras. At the time, Nicopolis ad Istrum was inhabited by Thracians, Roman military veterans, and settlers from Asia Minor. Nicopolis ad Istrum is known to have minted 900 different emissions of bronze coins. The city had orthogonal planning, with an agora (city square), a cardo maximus and a decumanus maximus (main streets), a market place, other public buildings and residential areas, limestone-paved streets and underground sewerage, as well as three aqueducts and several water wells, many of which has been unearthed in archaeological excavations.

The fortress walls of Nicopolis ad Istrum were erected only after the city was ransacked by a barbarian attack of the Costoboci, an ancient people possibly linked to the Getae (Gets) inhabiting an area in today’s Western Ukraine. The city square (agora) featured a statue of Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse, a number of other marble statues, a Ionic colonnade, a three-nave basilica, a bouleuterion (a public building housing the boule – council of citizens), a building to the cult of goddess Cybele, a small odeon (theater), thermae (public baths) as well as a building which according to an inscription was a “termoperiatos” which can be likened to a modern-day shopping mall – a heated building with shops and closed space for walks and business meetings. A total of 121 stone and brick tombs and sarcophagi have been found by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the city’s necropolis. Some villas and other buildings in the residential parts of Nicopolis ad Istrum have also been excavated.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD. The Early Byzantine fort covered one about one forth of the Ancient Roman city – 57.5 decares (app. 14.2 acres) out of a total of 215.5 decares (app. 53.2 decares), and was also the center of a bishopric. The Early Byzantine fort was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval city in the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

Nicopolis ad Istrum was visited in 1871 by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz who found there a statue of the wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD). The city was first excavated in 1900 by French archaeologist J. Seur whose work, however, was not documented, and in 1906-1909 by Czech archaeologist B. Dobruski. In 1945 and 1966-1968, there were partial excavations led by T. Ivanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Systematic excavations were started in 1970 and were led again by T. Ivanov. Between 1985 and 1992, Nicopolis ad Istrum was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-British expedition from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and a team of the University of Nottingham. The joint Bulgarian-British excavations were resumed in 1996. The Nicopolis ad Istrum archaeological preserve is managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. In 1984, the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was put on the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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