A rare assemblage of “astragali” – animal knuckle bones used for gaming and divination, dating from the Hellenistic period (2300 years ago), was uncovered by Dr. Ian Stern in the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Park in southern Israel. This exceptionally large collection was published in the British archaeological journal Levant (Gaming and divination in the Hellenistic Levant: the case study of the astragalus assemblage from Mare). The assemblage was discovered several years ago, in the huge underground cave complex below the ancient city of Maresha.
Maresha was one of the cities of Judah during the First Temple era, and it is mentioned in the Bible as one of the cities belonging to the tribe of Judah in the book of Joshua, in the list of Rehoboam’s fortifications, and the description of the battle between Zerah HaKushi and King Asa of Judea. Like other cities in the Judean flatlands, Maresha was damaged during the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s campaign through Judea, after Hezekiah’s rebellion (701 BCE). In the 6th century BCE, after the Nebuchadnezzar exile, Maresha was also emptied of its Jewish inhabitants.
The prophet Micah was probably from Maresha and was called “Micah HaMorashti.”
The collection of bones was studied by Dr. Lee Perry-Gal of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Dr. Avner Ecker of the Department of Land of Israel Studies at the University of Bar Ilan, and Dr. Ian Stern of the Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology, Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem.
The astragali—knuckle bones of goats, sheep, and cattle—were used as dice for gaming and ritual divination. Some of the knuckle bones were shaved down, perforated, or filled with lead, to be thrown more effectively as dice.
Tens of the dice bore Greek inscriptions: some were engraved with the names of gods associated in ancient times with human wishes and desires: Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility, love, and beauty; Eros, the god of love; Hermes, the herald of the gods; Hera, goddess of marriage, women, the sky and the stars of heaven; and Nike, the goddess of victory. On other knuckle bones, game instructions and various game roles are engraved, such as “Robber,” “Stop!” and “You are burnt.”
According to IAA zooarchaeologist and research fellow at the University of Haifa, Dr. Lee Perry-Gal, “the assemblage of astragali from Maresha is very unique, specifically the large quantity and good quality, and the many inscriptions. The assemblage shows that in ancient times of distress, as today, people sought help from external factors, in magic and spells, and the world of the unknown. In the past, men, and especially women, struggled with an environment of uncertainty, death, childbirth, and health issues, and tried to protect themselves with the help of magic. In addition, we know that astragali were used for games. It is noteworthy that we have examples of children buried with similar gaming dice. The cubes, which were a popular gaming activity, had a role in accompanying children to the next world, to be used there.”
Dr. Perry-Gal added that “since the astragali symbolize good luck, it was customary to inter them under the house threshold, in the hope that they will bring good luck and prosperity. It is of interest that these knuckle bones are often found next to ostraca (pottery sherds with writing inscribed or written in ink), which bore Aramaic texts, such as, ‘Magical incantation,’ or ‘If you do so, this will happen to you,’ which demonstrates their cultic role.”
According to Dr. Perry-Gal, “The Hellenistic city of Maresha was one of the period’s melting-pots in the southern Levant. “Different populations and cultures lived side-by-side here as neighbors, all subordinate to the Hellenistic rule. There lived here Edomites, Phoenicians, Nabateans and Jews, and the different peoples and cultures influenced each other.”
According to IAA Director Eli Eskosido, “this fascinating research sheds light on the life and customs in the ancient world and reminds us that people are regular people all over the world. They dream and hope, and notwithstanding the harshness of daily life, they find time for playing and leisure.”