Play was a central element of people's lives as far back as 4,000 years ago. This has been revealed by an archaeology thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, which investigates the social significance of the phenomenon of play and games in the Bronze Age Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan.
It is not uncommon for archaeologists excavating old settlements to come across play and game-related finds, but within established archaeology these types of finds have often been disregarded.
"They have been regarded, for example, as signs of harmless pastimes and thus considered less important for research, or have been reinterpreted based on ritual aspects or as symbols of social status," explains author of the thesis Elke Rogersdotter.
She has studied play-related artefacts found at excavations in the ruins of the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in present-day Pakistan. The remains constitute the largest urban settlement from the Bronze Age in the Indus Valley, a cultural complex of the same era as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The settlement is difficult to interpret; for example, archaeologists have not found any remains of temples or palaces. It has therefore been tough to offer an opinion on how the settlement was managed or how any elite class marked itself out.
Elke Rogersdotter's study shows some surprising results. Almost every tenth find from the ruined city is play-related. They include, for instance, different forms of dice and gaming pieces. In addition, the examined finds have not been scattered all over. Repetitive patterns have been discerned in the spatial distribution, which may indicate specific locations where games were played.
"The marked quantity of play-related finds and the structured distribution shows that playing was already an important part of people's everyday lives more than 4,000 years ago," says Elke.
"The reason that play and game-related artefacts often end up ignored or being reinterpreted at archaeological excavations is probably down to scientific thinking's incongruity with the irrational phenomenon of games and play," believes Elke.
"The objective of determining the social significance of the actual games therefore, in turn, challenges established ways of thinking. It is an instrument we can use to come up with interpretations that are closer to the individual person. We may gain other, more socially-embedded, approaches for a difficult-to-interpret settlement."
The thesis has been successfully defended.