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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

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Ancient Greeks loved games of chance. One of the most popular games was knucklebones. We know this from the numerous scenes of the game that survive. Knucklebone players appear on wall paintings, as statues, and on vases. Here we see one of the finest representations. It is a terracotta group of 2 women at play. It comes from the final decades of the 4th century BCE from the region of Campania in southern Italy. Greek communities had been settled there since the 8th century and this terracotta group shows the influence of the Greeks in the region. The detailing in the terracotta is of particularly high quality. Each figure was produced separately. A peg allows them to be slotted into the rectangular base and detached for transport or storage.

This game is happening in a private or a domestic setting. Look at the bare heads and arms of the figures. These indicate both the youth of the figures and tell us that this scene is not happening in public. When out in public, women covered up – they tended to be more heavily veiled and wrapped.

Although called knucklebones, the game pieces were actually modelled on the anklebones of sheep and goats. This game swept the Mediterranean. Not only popular with the Greeks and Romans, Persian kings and Egyptian pharaohs also played with knucklebones. Sets of knucklebones carved in ivory have been found in Egyptian tombs.

In the Greek world, knucklebones was a popular game with the young. Most children would have carried around a bag of them, and they frequently appear in the graves of children. We don’t know the exact rules for the different games that would have been played, but we know points were awarded according to which of the 4 different sides appeared face-up after a throw.

As fate and chance was seen to be controlled by the gods, Greeks also used throws of knucklebones to get a glimpse into their future. A person would ask a question and then throw. Throwing 5 knucklebones produces 56 possible combinations of results. Tables were created to help interpret the result. Such consultations were particularly popular with young women who were very keen to find out about future husbands. The choice of husband was crucial in a girl’s life. Yet it was a choice that very few girls had any say in, so they were naturally anxious about what the future may hold. We can imagine them holding their breath as they waited to see how the knucklebones fell.

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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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