Learn to Play Senet, the 5,000-Year Old Ancient Egyptian Game Beloved by Queens & Pharaohs

Senet gaming board inscribed for Amenhotep III with separate sliding drawer, via Wikimedia Commons

Games don’t just pass the time, they enact battles of wits, proxy wars, training exercises…. And historically, games are correlated with, if not inseparable from, forms of divination and occult knowledge. We might point to the ancient practice of “astragalomancy,” for example: reading one’s fate in random throws of knucklebones, which were the original dice. Games played with bones or dice date back thousands of years. One of the most popular of the ancient world, the Egyptian Senet, may not be the oldest known, but it could be “the original board game of death,” Colin Barras writes at Science, predating the Ouija board by millennia.

Beginning as “a mere pastime,” Senet evolved “over nearly 2 millennia… into a game with deep links to the afterlife, played on a board that represented the underworld.” There’s no evidence the Egyptians who played around 5000 years ago believed the game’s dice rolls meant anything in particular.

Over the course of a few hundred years, however, images of Senet began appearing in tombs, showing the dead playing against surviving friends and family. “Texts from the time suggest the game had begun to be seen as a conduit through which the dead could communicate with the living” through moves over a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows of ten.

Facsimile copy of ca. 1279–1213 B.C. painting of Queen Nefertiti playing Senet, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Beloved by such luminaries as the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II,” Meilan Solly notes at Smithsonian, Senet was played on “ornate game boards, examples of which still survive today.” (Four boards were found in Tut’s tomb.) “Those with fewer resources at their disposal made do with grids scratched on stone surfaces, tables or the floor.” As the game became a tool for glimpsing one’s fate, its last five spaces acquired hieroglyphics symbolizing “special playing circumstances. Pieces that landed in square 27’s ‘waters of chaos,’ for example, were sent all the way back to square 15 — or removed from the board entirely,” sort of like hitting the wrong square in Chutes and Ladders.

Senet gameplay was complicated. “Two players determined their moves by throwing casting sticks or bones,” notes the Met. The object was to get all of one’s pieces across square 30 — each move represented an obstacle to the afterlife, trials Egyptians believed the dead had to endure and pass or fail (the game’s name itself means “passing”). “Because of this connection, senet was not just a game; it was also a symbol for the struggle to obtain immortality, or endless life,” as well as a means of understanding what might get in the way of that goal.

The game’s rules likely changed with its evolving purpose, and might have been played several different ways over the course 2500 years or so. As Brandeis University professor Jim Storer notes in an explanation of possible gameplay, “the exact rules are not known; scholars have studied old drawings to speculate on the rules” — hardly the most reliable guide. If you’re interested, however, in playing Senet yourself, resurrecting, so to speak, the ancient tradition for fun or otherwise, you can easily make your own board. Storer’s presentation of what are known as Jequier’s Rules can be found here. For another version of Senet play, see the video above from Egyptology Lessons.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the Survivors of Pompeii Escaped Mount Vesuvius’ Deadly Eruption: A TED-Ed Animation Tells the Story

We tend to imagine Pompeii as a city frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, inhabitants and all, but most Pompeiians actually survived the disaster. “The volcano’s molten rock, scorching debris and poisonous gases killed nearly 2,000 people” in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, writes Live Science’s Laura Geggel. Of the 15,000 and 20,000 people in total who’d lived there, “most stayed along the southern Italian coast, resettling in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli,” according to the latest archaeological research. Vesuvius may have made refugees of them, but history has revealed that they made the right choice.

Pompeiians in particular, as the TED-Ed lesson above depicts it, faced three choices: “seek shelter, escape to the south on foot, or flee to the west by sea,” the latter made a viable proposition by the town’s location near the coast. The video’s animation (scripted by archaeology Gary Devore) dramatizes the fates of three siblings, Lucius, Marcus, and Fabia, on that fateful day in A.D. 79. “Fabia and her brothers discuss the recent tremors everyone’s been feeling,” says the narrator. “Lucius jokes that there’ll always be work for men who rebuild walls in Pompeii.” It is then that the long-rumbling Vesuvius emits a “deafening boom,” then spews “smoke, ash, and rock high into the air.”

Gathering up his own family from Herculaneum, Marcus goes seaward, but the waves are “brimming with volcanic matter, making it impossible for boats to navigate close enough to shore.” As subsequent phases of the eruption further devastate the towns, the luckless Lucius finds himself entombed in the room where he’d been awaiting his fiancée. Sheltering with her husband and daughters, and hearing the roof of her home “groan under the weight of volcanic debris,” Fabia alone makes the choice to join the stream of humanity walking southeast, away from the volcano. This sounds reasonable, although when Wired‘s Cody Cassidy asks University of Naples Federico II forensic anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone to recommend the best course of action, the expert suggests fleeing to the north, toward Herculaneum and finally Naples — and more immediately, toward Vesuvius.

“The road between Pompeii and Naples was well maintained,” Petrone tells Cassidy, “and the written records of those who survived suggest that most of the successful escapees went north — while most of the bodies of the attempted escapees (who admittedly left far too late) have been found to the south.” Should you find yourself walking the thirteen miles between between Pompeii and Naples in the midst of a volcanic eruption, you should “avoid overexertion and take any opportunity to drink fresh water.” As Petrone writes, “only those who managed to understand from the beginning the gravity of the situation” — the Fabias, in other words — “escaped in time.” The likes of Mount Vesuvius would seem to rank low on the list of dangers facing humanity today, but nearly two millennia after Pompeii, it is, after all, still active.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Steinbeck Wrote a Werewolf Novel, and His Estate Won’t Let the World Read It: The Story of Murder at Full Moon

Photo of Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and MenThe Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, but not before he’d put a few less-acclaimed novels under his belt. He didn’t even break through to success of any kind until 1935’s Tortilla Flat, which later became a popular romantic-comedy film with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. That was already Steinbeck’s fourth published novel, and he’d written nearly as many unpublished ones. Two of those three manuscripts he destroyed, but a fourth survives at the University of Texas in Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which specialized in hoarding literary ephemera, especially from Nobel laureates. The unpublished novel deals not with laborers, farmers, or wastrels, but a werewolf.

“Set in a fictional Californian coastal town, Murder at Full Moon tells the story of a community gripped by fear after a series of gruesome murders takes place under a full moon,” writes The Guardian‘s Dalya Alberge. “Investigators fear that a supernatural monster has emerged from the nearby marshes. Its characters include a cub reporter, a mysterious man who runs a local gun club and an eccentric amateur sleuth who sets out to solve the crime using techniques based on his obsession with pulp detective fiction.”

Alberge quotes Stanford literary scholar Gavin Jones describing the book as related to Steinbeck’s “interest in violent human transformation – the kind of human-animal connection that you find all over his work; his interest in mob violence and how humans are capable of other states of being, including particularly violent murderers.”

Then still in his twenties, Steinbeck wrote Murder at Full Moon under the pseudonym Peter Pym. After receiving only rejections from publishers, he shelved the manuscript and seems not to have given it another thought, even in order to dispose of it. Though Steinbeck’s estate has declared its lack of interest in its posthumous publication, Jones believes it would find a receptive readership today:  “It’s a horror potboiler, which is why I think readers would find it more interesting than a more typical Steinbeck.” It also “predicts Californian noir detective fiction. It is an unsettling story whose atmosphere is one of fog-bound, malicious, malignant secrecy.” It could at least have made quite a noir film, ideally one starring Lon Chaney, Jr., whose performance in Of Mice and Men proved he could play a Steinbeck character — to say nothing of his subsequent turn in The Wolf Man.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Story of Elizebeth Friedman, the Pioneering Cryptologist Who Thwarted the Nazis & Got Burned by J. Edgar Hoover

Elizebeth S. Friedman: Suburban Mom or Ninja Nazi Hunter?

Both, though in her lifetime, the press was far more inclined to fixate on her ladylike aspect and homemaking duties than her career as a self-taught cryptoanalyst, with headlines such as “Pretty Woman Who Protects United States” and “Solved By Woman.”

The novelty of her gender led to a brief stint as America’s most recognizable codebreaker, more famous even than her fellow cryptologist, husband William Friedman, who was instrumental in the founding of the National Security Agency during the Cold War.

Renowned though she was, the highly classified nature of her work exposed her to a security threat in the person of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover credited the FBI, and by extension, himself, for deciphering some 50 Nazi radio circuits’ codes, at least two of them protected with Enigma machines.

He also rushed to raid South American sources in his zeal to make an impression and advance his career, scuppering Friedman’s mission by causing Berlin to put a stop to all transmissions to that area.

Too bad no one asked him to demonstrate the methods he’d used to crack these impossible nuts.

The German agents used the same codes and radio techniques as the Consolidated Exporters Corporation, a mob-backed rum-running operation whose codes and ciphers Elizebeth had translated as chief cryptologist for the U.S. Treasury Department during Prohibition.

As an expert witness in the criminal trial of international rumrunner Bert Morrison and his associates, she modestly asserted that it was “really quite simple to decode their messages if you know what to look for,” but the sample decryption she provided the jury made it plain that her work required tremendous skill. The Mob Museum’s Jeff Burbank sets the scene:

She read a sample message, referring to a brand of whiskey: “Out of Old Colonel in Pints.” She showed how the three “o” and “l” letters in “Colonel” had identical cipher code letters. From the cipher’s letters for “Colonel” she could figure out the letter the racketeers chose for “e,” the most frequently occurring letter in English, based on other brand names of liquor they mentioned in other messages. The “o” and “l” letters in “alcohol,” she said, had the same cipher letters as “Colonel.” 

Cinchy, right?

Elizebeth’s biographer, Jason Fagone, notes that in discovering the identity, codename and ciphers used by German spy network Operation Bolívar‘s leader, Johannes Siegfried Becker, she succeeded where “every other law enforcement agency and intelligence agency failed. She did what the FBI could not do.”

Sexism and Hoover were not the only enemies.

William Friedman’s criticism of the NSA for classifying documents he thought should be a matter of public record led to a rift resulting in the confiscation of dozens of papers from the couple’s home that documented their work.

This, together with the 50-year “TOP SECRET ULTRA” classification of her WWII records, ensured that Elizebeth’s life would end beneath “a vast dome of silence.”

Recognition is mounting, however.

Nearly 20 years after her 1980 death, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor as “a pioneer in code breaking.”

A National Security Agency building now bears both Friedmans’ names.

The U.S. Coast Guard will soon be adding a Legend Class Cutter named the USCGC Friedman to their fleet.

In addition to Fagone’s biography, a picture book, Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, was published earlier this year.

As far as we know, there are no picture books dedicated to the pioneering work of J. Edgar Hoover….

Elizebeth Friedman, via Wikimedia Commons

Watch The Codebreaker, PBS’s American Experience biography of Elizebeth Friedman here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The First Cellphone: Discover Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, a 2-Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

We get the culture our technology permits, and in the 21st century no technological development has changed culture like that of the smartphone. As with every piece of personal technology that we struggle to remember how we lived without, it evolved into being from a series of simpler predecessors that, no matter how clunky they seem now, were received as technological marvels in their day. Take it from Martin Cooper, the Motorola Engineer who invented the first handheld cellular mobile phone. “We didn’t know it was going to be historic in any way at all,” he says of the first publicly demonstrated cellphone call in 1973 in the Bloomberg video above. “We were only worried about one thing: is the phone going to work when we turn it on?”

The device Cooper had in hand was the prototype that would eventually become the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the first commercial portable cellular phone. (This as distinct from the existing car-phone systems that Cooper credits with inspiring him to develop an entirely handheld version.) Brought to market in 1983, it weighed about two pounds, took ten hours to charge a battery that lasted only 30 minutes, could store no more than 30 phone numbers, and cost nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Yet “consumers were so impressed by the concept of being always accessible with a portable phone that waiting lists for the DynaTAC 8000X were in the thousands,” says Motorola design master Rudy Krolopp as quoted by the Project Management Institute. “In 1983, the notion of simply making wireless phone calls was revolutionary.”

38 years after “the brick,” as the 8000X was known, we’ve grown so used to that notion that many of us hardly ever make wireless phone calls anymore, preferring to communicate on our phones through text messages or an ever-expanding universe of internet-based apps — to say nothing of the other aspects of our lives increasingly handled through palm-sized touchscreens. “The modern smartphone is a technological marvel,” says Cooper. “It really is incredible, all the stuff that is squeezed into that cellphone.” Yet despite the astonishing evolution of his invention it represents, he’s not satisfied. “We think that we can make a smartphone that does all things for all people, and yet we know that it doesn’t do any of those things perfectly. We’ve still got a ways to go.” If you’re reading this on a smartphone, know that you hold in your hand the “brick” of 2059.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Surprising Reason Why Chinatowns Worldwide Share the Same Aesthetic, and How It All Started with the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Anti-Chinese racism runs deep in American culture and law, beginning in the 19th century as competition intensified in California gold and land rushes. Chinese immigrants were pushed into teeming cities, then denigrated for surviving in overcrowded slums. To get a sense of the scope of the prejudice, we need only consider the 1882 law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act — the only legislation passed to explicitly restrict immigration by one ethnic or national group. The law actually goes back to 1875, when the Page Act banned Chinese women from immigrating. It was only repealed in 1943.

Although routinely evaded, the severe restrictions and outright bans on Chinese immigration under the Exclusion Act drove and were driven by racist ideas still visible today in tropes of dangerous, exoticized “dragon ladies” or sexually submissive concubines: roles given in early Hollywood films to the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, who, after 1909 — despite being the most recognizable Chinese-American in the world — had to carry identification at all times to prove her legal status.

Wong was born in Los Angeles, a city that — like every other major metropolis — became home to its own Chinatown, and a famous one at that. But the most famous of the segregated urban areas originated in San Francisco, after the 1906 earthquake that nearly leveled the city and “came on the heels of decades of violence and racist laws targeting Chinese communities in the US,” notes Vox. “The earthquake devastated Chinatown. But in the destruction, San Francisco’s Chinese businessmen had an idea for a fresh start” that would define the look of Chinatowns worldwide.

The new Chinatown was more than a new start; it was survival. As often happens after disasters, proposals for relocating the unpopular immigrant neighborhood appeared “before the dust had settled and smoke cleared,” notes 99 Percent Invisible. “The city’s mayor commissioned architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham to draw up plans aligned with the City Beautiful movement.” Feeling they had to cater to white American stereotypes to gain acceptance, Chinese-American business leaders “hired architect T. Paterson Ross and engineer A.W. Burgren to rebuild—even though neither man had been to China.”

The architects “relied on centuries-old images, primarily of religious vernacular, to develop the look of the new Chinatown,” and the result was to create a genuine tourist attraction — an “iconic look,” the Vox Missing Chapter video explains, that bears little resemblance to actual Chinese cities. The Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco “kept their culture alive by inventing a new one,” a deliberate co-optation of Orientalist stereotypes for a city, its merchants decided, that would be built of “veritable fairy palaces.”

The New Chinatown was “not quite Chinese, not quite American”; safe for middle-class tourism and consumption and safer for Chinese businesses to flourish. The model spread rapidly. Now, in whatever major city we might might visit — outside of China, that is — the Chinatown we encounter is both a unique cultural hybrid and a marketing triumph that offered a measure of protection to beleaguered Chinese immigrant communities around the world.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Shop Online & Check Your E-Mail on the Go: A 1980s British TV Show Demonstrates

“Links between computers and television sets are, it is always threatened, about to herald in an age of unbelievable convenience,” announces television presenter Tony Bastable in the 1984 clip above, “where all the sociability of going down to your corner shop to order the week’s groceries will be replaced with an order over the airwaves.” Do tell. Live though we increasingly do with internet-connected “smart TVs,” the only unfamiliar-sounding part of that prediction is its reference to television sets. But back then, most every home computer used them as displays, and when also plugged into the telephone line they granted users the previously unthinkable ability to make instant financial transactions at any hour of the day or night, without leaving the house.

Mundane though it sounds now that many of us both do all our work and get all our entertainment online, paying bills was a draw for early adopters, who could come from unlikely places: Nottingham, for instance, the Nottingham Building Society being one of the first financial institutions in the world to offer online banking to its members.

Closer to Thames Headquarters, North London couple Pat and Julian Green appear in the clip above to demonstrate how to use something called “e-mail.” But first they must hook up their modem and connect to Prestel (a national online network that in the United Kingdom played something like the role Minitel did in France), an “extremely simple” process that will look agonizingly complicated to anyone who grew up in the age of wi-fi.

I myself grew up using the TRS-80 Model 100, an early laptop inherited from my technophile grandfather. Bastable whips out the very same computer in the segment above, shot during Database‘s trip to Japan. “The big advantage of a piece of equipment like this is to be able to couple it up back to my home base over the telephone line using one of these,” he says from his seat on a train, holding up the acoustic coupler designed to connect the Model 100 directly to a standard handset, in this case the pay phone in the front of the carriage. Alas, Bastable finds that “none of us have got enough change to make the call to England,” forcing him to check his messages from his hotel room instead. Would that I could send him a vision of my effortless experience connecting to wi-fi onboard a train crossing South Korea just yesterday. The future, to coin a phrase, is now.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Accurate Recreations of Medieval Italian Longsword Fighting Techniques, All Based on a Manuscript from 1404

Given recent events, the prospect of hundreds of young men meeting on Facebook, then traveling from around the country to a central U.S. location might sound like reasonable cause for alarm. Yet a recent convention fitting that description had nothing to do with political violence but, rather, a celebration and appreciation of the name “Josh” (full disclosure: this writer did not attend). The gathering of the Joshes this past April in Nebraska could not have been more peaceful, including its finishing battle royale, conducted with pool noodles. (Winner: adorable 4-year-old Josh Vinson, Jr., or “Little Josh,” from Lincoln, NE).

The Joshes had no concern for proper pool-noodle-wielding technique, if there is such a thing. But groups of people who gather around the country to stage medieval-style battles in live-action role playing (LARP) games with weapons both real and fake might benefit from pointers.

So, too, might those who choreograph sword fights on stage and screen. Where can serious historical re-creators learn how to wield a real blade in historically accurate combat? One resource can be found at Wiktenauer, a wiki devoted to collecting “all of the primary and secondary source literature that makes up the text of historical European Martial arts (HEMA) research.”

The Fior di Battaglia (“Flower of Battle”) — an Italian fencing manual by Fiore de’i Liberi dating from circa 1404 — offers richly- and copiously-illustrated demonstrations of medieval Italian longsword fighting techniques. In the original manuscript, seen here and at The Getty, “the illustrations are inked sketches with gold leafing on the crowns and garters,” notes the Wiktenauer entry. They dominate the text, which “takes the form of descriptive paragraphs set in poor Italian verse, which are nevertheless fairly clear and informative.” So clear, indeed, the brooding young men of Akademia Szermierzy — a Polish group that recreates medieval sword-fighting techniques — can more than convincingly mimic the moves in the video at the top.

Once they get going, after some requisite pre-fight rigamarole, it’s impressive stuff, maybe already familiar to modern fencers and certain members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the LARP-ing organization of amateurs recreating everything from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But for those who think all live-action role-playing is the equivalent of the Battle of the Joshes (or off-brand Nazis running through the streets in homemade armor), the sheer ballet of historical sword-fighting may come as a surprise — and maybe inspire a few more people to pull on the doublet and hose. See more medieval sword-fighting recreations from Akademia Szermierzy here, and the full text of the Fior di Battaglia here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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