Small pieces of shaped and decorated bone are often called "gaming pieces” by archaeologists.
Ancient people may have used them in gambling or games of entertainment. Others suggest they had a ceremonial or ornamental purpose, or were small-scale scraping tools.
Flat, ovoid pieces are usually engraved on one side, smooth on the other, and measure about one inch (2.5 cm) long.
They are frequently found in sets of seven, eight, or nine, often accompanied by one or two circular disks about 0.4" (1 cm) in diameter, also engraved, with a hole through the center.
CLUES FROM AN
Many game pieces were found during the Dolores Archaeological Program at Grass Mesa Village, an Ancestral Puebloan settlement site in the Dolores River Valley. Grass Mesa was inhabited AD 700 - AD 925, and home to as many as 184 households at its peak between AD 880 and AD 920.
Why were so many game pieces were found at this village? Maybe Grass Mesa was a gambling center, or maybe game pieces were made and traded from here.
Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey excavated a cave site in northern Arizona in the early 1900s. They found a skin bag containing eight incised ovals and three disks. The pieces were all found inside the bag, evidently as a set. These artifacts strongly resemble the pieces from Grass Mesa Village.
This piece was made from a deer or mountain sheep bone-- probably the tibia, femur, or metapodia.
Three partial holes were drilled into the piece. A fourth, diagonal hole, is a tendonal opening where a tendon passed through the bone. The maker may have chosen this specific piece because of the natural hole.
CLUES FROM CULTURAL (ETHNOGRAPHIC) PERSPECTIVES
James Enote, Zuni tribal member and Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center examined these piecs. They reminded him of some games played at Zuni, but he could not identify classify them definitively as game pieces.
“We have a game we play at Zuni.... My grandparents, my grandfather and uncles used to play it. Dasholi:we. It’s a stick game, you drop it and it spreads apart and it’s color-coded, you’ve probably seen those before. They fall and you add them up and you have stones you move around in a circle and so it reminds me of that.
“One of the things that came to mind when I looked at the incisions is corn.... I am corn clan and my grandma and aunts and people, my mother’s side, used to make, almost everything had corn, a sort of corn inscribed in some way, either hatching like this, or deliberately carving each kernel.... A lot of things had some sort of corn symbol or symbology connected to corn... fetishes or something. They’re representations of something in the world .... [I]f I was going to carve something like this I would be thinking corn.“
“When you look at corn from the edge on, a lot of times those rows add up to... around twelve or thirteen, maybe something like that. And these are twelve, one is twelve, the other is thirteen [talking about the number of lines engraved on the circle pieces].
The corn piece that I have, I keep it with my cornmeal. […] Something my grandma used to also do, she used to make little clay corns, and put it with the seeds. So she would have a bag of seeds and this clay corn, it was sort of like ‘grow to be like this.’”
Fetishes, or effigies, are an important part of Zuni ceremonialism. Offerings of corn meal are made to the effigies.
It is possible that these bone pieces could be both game pieces and representations of corn. Research literature suggests some connections between the two concepts:
"Dice and other gaming equipment were often sacrificed on Hopi and Zuni altars associated with specific ceremonies ... to promote the reproduction of animals and the fertilization of corn." (Kathryn Gabriel, 1996, Gambler Way: Indian Gaming in Mythology, History, and Archaeology in North America. Johnson Books, Boulder )
"...Iyatiku, the Corn Woman, gave people a gambling game to distract them from worrying during a drought. The men, however, became so obsessed with the gambling game that they neglected their families, causing a famine. Iyatiku left the village in anger at the men, but left behind her power in the form of Irriaku, the Corn Mother. In ceremonies, a perfect ear of corn represents Irriaku." (Paula Gunn Allen, 1986, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press, Boston)
Ethnographer Stewart Culin noted that people of many tribes played games using “dice.” He wrote:
“[T]he dice, with minor exceptions, have two faces, distinguished by colors or markings, and are of a great variety of materials - split canes, wooden staves or “the dice, with minor exceptions, have two faces, distinguished by colors or markings, and are of a great variety of materials - split canes, wooden staves or blocks, bone staves, beaver and woodchuck teeth, walnut shells, peach and plum stones, grains of corn, and bone, shell, brass, and pottery disks.” (Culin, 1907. Games of North American Indians. Bulletin No.24, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC)
According to Culin, one common guessing game involved small pieces of bone or wood, one marked with lines or color. A player concealed the objects, one in each hand, while a challenger guessed which hand held the unmarked object.
Another game involved throwing the pieces into the air, and seeing them land face-up or face-down. Players would gamble on the outcome.
Culin wrote that objects from an archaeological site near Tanner Springs, Arizona resembled the game pieces he had seen. The Tanner Springs objects closely resemble the ones from Grass Mesa Village.
Marie Wormington recovered 171 small bone pieces from an archaeological site in western Utah. When a local Cheyenne woman saw them, she recalled a game once played by the Cheyenne with similar pieces .
Although the game's details have been lost, Wormington reported that the game pieces were tossed inside a basket, and each player chose one piece.
(Wormington, 1955. "A Reappraisal of the Fremont Culture" in Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Natural History No. 1.)
Male vs. Female games:
In many cases, Native American men and women historically played different games, or had different roles in games. This might also have been the case at Grass Mesa Village.
- Culin writes that both men and women played dice games, but always separately. When dice games were played ceremonially, they were always played by all men.
- A Navajo story tells of a gambler taught different games to men and women at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The “three-stick game” was a woman’s game, and men would never play it. The gambler gave three other types of games to the men (Gretchen Chapin, 1940. "A Navajo Myth from the Chaco Canyon." in New Mexico Anthropologist 4(4): 63-67.)
- Clark Wissler, who visited Blackfeet communities in the early 1900s, observed a "four-stick game” played only by women, using game pieces made from buffalo bone. (Clark Wissler, 1911. "The social life of the Blackfoot Indians" in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 8.)