he fire dwindles in the hearth, a family picks through the remains of their feast, turning over the bones for any remaining flesh. It is about 3000BC in Skara Brae, a small neolithic settlement on the west coast of Orkney’s Mainland, Scotland. These people live a comfortable lifestyle – and they have time to have fun. The satisfied diners take a moment to enjoy themselves.
One of the family finds a knucklebone – knobbly, bumpy and thumbnail-sized – and flicks it across the room. Someone else gathers a few together to stack in a tower. Soon, rules are drawn up – points scored for landing your bone closest to a target, flicking the most into a cup, or knocking over your opponent’s tower. Modern games like throwing jacks, tiddlywinks and Korean gonggi are all based on the same idea. We have flicked stuff around to amuse ourselves for millennia.
Our Skara Brae family were not the first to play with knucklebones – we have examples of knucklebone games throughout history. But what they do next has no earlier examples. They numbered the sides of the bones with dots.
If you were to walk into this house and sort through the family’s possessions as they slept, their belongings could be divided into two piles: things whose purpose we recognise and things we don’t recognise. On the “don’t know” side are strange objects – smooth, carved stone balls, for example, which were perhaps weapons or status symbols, and several other decorated stones that might have been “prized personal possessions”, writes Antonia Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands, UK.
On the “know” side would be carved wooden cups, pieces of pottery – and our numbered bones. These bones are 5,000-year-old dice whose design and purpose have remained practically identical until today. A modern person would immediately know how to use them.
While knucklebones could provide amusement in their own right, numbering their sides created a whole new world of gaming opportunities. Dice are the original random number generators – they created chance.
Dice are peculiarly universal. More often than not, from Europe to Asia, the sides are numbered with “pips” rather than writing, just like the two found in Skara Brae. Dice with pips have remained unchanged for millennia.