The Tutankhamun Exhibit
Senet Game Board
In the introduction to Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead, playing a game called senet is described as one of the occupations of the deceased person in the next world, and the vignette accompanying the chapter represents him seated, often in the company of his wife, at a checkerboard but without an opponent. Like so many other activities ascribed to the next life, playing this game was also something that the deceased had done in his lifetime. It must have a long history, because it is represented occasionally in the scenes on the walls of Old Kingdom tombs, a thousand years before the time of Tutankhamun, sometimes in association with music and other kinds of entertainment. On the standard board there were generally three rows of ten squares, five of which might be inscribed with hieroglyphics; each player had five or seven playing pieces, frequently conical in shape.
To judge from the number of boards in Tutankhamun's tomb, the game must have been one of his favorite pastimes. The boards - four in all - vary is size from a miniature set to the largest and most elegant, which is shown here. It is box-shaped and is mounted in a rebate on top of an ebony stand in the form of a bed frame with feline paws resting on gilded drums. Beneath the drums is an ebony sledge. The claws of each paw are made of ivory and the "cushions" and the braces, which strengthen the joints between the frame and the paws, are gilded. The box itself is veneered with ebony and the thirty squares, five of which are inscribed, are inlaid with ivory. At one end of the board is a small drawer for the gaming pieces. Originally it was fastened by two bolts, probably of gold, which slid into staples fixed on the frame. Since the pieces were missing, Carter supposed that they were made of gold and silver and were stolen by the ancient robbers. Like many of the other known examples, this box is double-sided, the game played on the reverse side being called tjau, a word that seems to mean "robbers" That board is divided into twenty squares, a middle row of twelve squares flanked by four squares on each side at one end. Three of the squares in the middle row are inscribed, one with a kneeling figure of Heh, the god of millions of years, another with two thrones in pavilions (the sign for a jubilee festival), and the third with the hieroglyphic signs for life, stability, and dominion.
Nothing is known with certainty about the rules of play for either game, but it is believed that the aim of each player in senet was to be the first to reach the square at the angle of the L-shaped arrangement inscribed with three signs meaning "happiness, beauty". The square preceding it may have been a hazard, because its hieroglyphs represent water. Certainly it was a game of chance, the moves being determined by the throw either of knucklebones or of four casting sticks, both of which were found in the tomb. The casting sticks were of two kinds, one pair having ends in the form of the tips of human fingers and the ends of the other being carved in the form of a long-eared canine animal, probably a fox. Both pairs consist of black ebony in the upper half and white ivory in the lower half. Perhaps the number of points scored from a cast depended on the number of sticks that finished with the white or black side uppermost when they were cast.
Besides the reference in the Book of the Dead to the game of senet, another religious text mentions what appears to be the same, or at least a very similar, game played by the deceased against a divine opponent to decide his fate in the underworld. The extant versions of this text all date from later than the time of Tutankhamun, but they may preserve an ancient belief. Nothing, however, in the character of his boards suggests that they were specially intended for religious or funerary purposes. The incised inscriptions filled with yellow pigment on the sides and ends of this box are strictly mundane, wishing the king life and prosperity and employing such titles and epithets as "The Strong Bull, beautiful of birth, image of Ra, precious offspring [literally "egg"] of Atum, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, ruler of the nine bows [i.e. foreign lands], lord of all the lands, and possessor of might Nebkheperura". On the other side he is called "Fair of laws, he who pacifies the Two Lands, 'the Horus of Gold' exalted of crowns who placates the gods". The short inscriptions around the drawer, which are of the same kind, describe him as "The good god, lord of the Two Lands, lord of crowns whom Ra created" and "Beloved of all the gods, may he be healthy, living forever". The three component parts of this piece were found scattered about the Annex.