Planet Earth

A Strategic Advance on Europe

By Jocelyn SelimNov 1, 2002 6:00 AM


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A two-inch-tall ivory chess piece, part of an ancient set, suggests that traders brought the game to Europe at least five centuries earlier than previously thought. Archaeologists led by Richard Hodges of Britain's East Anglia University excavated the game piece (right) from the remains of a fifth-century port city on the Albanian coast. Chess had probably originated as a war-strategy training game in India by the third century A.D., but it took ages to reach Europe, historians traditionally believed. "A number of chess pieces, found from Scotland down to southern Italy, date to around the 12th century, so it had been thought the game first became widespread in Europe around then," says Hodges. The new find hints at unexpectedly dynamic cultural exchanges during the late Roman Empire. "The piece was found in a wealthy Byzantine home, probably belonging to a Roman merchant capitalizing on trade between Europe and the Far East," Hodges says. "At the time, the empire was expanding rapidly, bringing in tapestries, textiles, wines. People most likely sat around playing the game while drinking wine from eastern outposts in Syrian glasses. Not such a bad life."

Photograph courtesy of Richard Hodges/East Anglia University.

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