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A marble statue of two women crouching and facing one another, holding several small hollowed-out objects in their hands.
Women playing knucklebones

LUCAS: Okay. Imagine you’ve done something awesome at school and the principal calls you up to give you a prize. You hold out your hand for the prize and the principal gives you …

A bag of sheep bones? Ummmm … WHAT?!

This may sound just a little bit lame, but if you were in Ancient Greece you’d be like, YES! You’d grab those bones, grab your friends and start playing a game of knucklebones. That’s exactly what the women in this statue are doing.

Knucklebones were made from all sorts of stuff, like metal, glass, wood, ivory or even terracotta, which is what this statue is made from.

Knucklebones were a prized possession. They could also be valuable, and the Ancient Greeks would even offer them to the gods.

So they’d take the knucklebones to a temple and be like, ‘Oh, Mighty Demeter, please take these knucklebones and give me a good harvest.’

And Demeter would be like, ‘What awesome knucklebones! I’ll see how I feel in the spring.’

Unfortunately, the gods didn’t always keep their promises. Still, the Ancient Greeks always tried. In one cave, archaeologists discovered over 16,000 knucklebones that had been left as offerings for some nymphs, a type of water spirit. Can you imagine Pokémon cards or other collectables being offered to the gods today?

There were heaps of ways to play knucklebones. First, you threw them into the air. In some games you’d try to catch them. Other times you’d let them land and score them depending on how they landed, like dice. Some people thought you could even use them to predict the future. And if you wanted some extra luck, you could throw the knuckles then call out the name of a god, or maybe the person you loved.

Whose name would you call on for luck?

Games of knucklebones have been found all over the world. You can even buy plastic knucklebones in some game shops today. It’s also known as just Knuckles or Jacks. Have you ever played it? Maybe your parents or grandparents played it when they were kids. Why not ask to play a game with them? You could always call on the gods for help.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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