Game of Hounds and Jackals

Period: Middle Kingdom

Dynasty: Dynasty 12

Reign: reign of Amenemhat IV

Date: ca. 1814–1805 B.C.

Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, el-Asasif, Birabi, pit tomb CC 25, debris, Carnarvon/Carter 1910

Medium: Ebony, ivory

Dimensions: Board: h. 6.3 cm (2 ½ in); w. 15.2 cm (6 in)

Credit Line: Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926 

Metropolitan Museum of Art , 26.7.1287a–k

This is the description from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The board rests on four bulls’ legs; one is completely restored and another only partially. There is a drawer with a bolt to store the playing pieces: five pins with hounds’ heads and five with jackals’ heads. The board is shaped like an axe-blade, and there are 58 holes in the upper surface with an incised palm tree topped by a shen sign in the center”. 

Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon reconstructed the game as follows in their publication of the find (Five Years of Explorations at Thebes, A Record of Work Done 1907-1911, London, Oxford, New York, 1912, p. 58): 

Presuming the ‘Shen’ sign … to be the goal, we find on either side twenty-nine holes, or including the goal, thirty aside. Among these holes, on either side, two are marked ..nefer, ‘good;’ and four others are linked together by curved lines.. Assuming that the holes marked ‘good’ incur a gain, it would appear that the others, connected by lines, incur a loss.. Now the moves themselves could easily have been denoted by the chance cast of knuckle-bones or dice….and if so we have before us a simple, but exciting, game of chance.” 

Excavated by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, 1910; acquired by Lord Carnarvon in the division of finds.
Jackal game piece.
Hound game piece.
Remained in the Carnarvon family until given to the Museum by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, 2012
The palm tree is clearly visible on the Egyptian board.

This beautiful ‘game of life’ was kept in the Canarvon Family Estate and was donated by the George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon in 2012.   The family seat, Highclere Castle, has achieved notability as the primary filming location for the television series Downton Abbey. 

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at Howard Carter’s home on the Theban west bank, according to Griffith Institute, Oxford

One may wonder why this intricate treasure remained in the Canarvon Family estate for such a long time.  George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, DL (26 June 1866 – 5 April 1923), an English aristocrat is best known as the financial backer of the search for and the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.  Lord Carnarvon was an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist, undertaking in 1907 to sponsor the excavation of nobles’ tombs in Deir el-Bahri (Thebes). Howard Carter joined him as his assistant in the excavations.  It is now established that it was Gaston Maspero, then Director of the Antiquities Department, who proposed Carter to Lord Carnarvon.  He received in 1914 the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings, in replacement of Theodore Davis who had resigned. In 1922, he and Howard Carter together opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, exposing treasures unsurpassed in the history of archaeology.

So why named Hounds & Jackals? 

The Egyptian jackal was regarded as somewhat sacred by the ancient Egyptians. So much so that one of their main and most important gods beheld the head of a jackal. That god’s name was Anubis, and he was considered a god of the underworld. The ancient Egyptians looked at death in a different way than most of us do today, and so they valued animals that they believed would guide the dead to the next world…which obviously included the ancient Egyptian jackal in the form of Anubis.

Egyptians likened the intricate voyage through the underworld to a game. This made gaming boards and gaming pieces appropriate objects to deposit in tomb. 

Twiggie Truth, 2016

Sources and further reading