In an elaborate palace, more than 1,300 years ago, members of an elite Roman family may have played some of the earliest chess games in Europe.
While excavating the bottom floor of an A.D. 465-era palace in Butrint, Albania, archaeologists unearthed what they believe is the oldest chess piece ever found. If their hunches are right, the find pushes back the time when it's believed chess was brought to Europe by hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, although some chess scholars remain skeptical this is possible.
"This was a most significant find that may well affect our understanding of the history of chess," says John Mitchell, a professor of art, architecture and European culture at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, who participated in the excavation.
The object plucked from the ruins two weeks ago predates most previously found evidence of the game, including texts about chess from the fifth to the seventh centuries in India. It suggests that Europeans began playing chess at least 500 years earlier than previous evidence has suggested. Mitchell proposes that the game originated in India around the third century B.C. and then migrated to the Middle East and Europe through the Romans in Greece and up the Mediterranean into Constantinople and then Albania.
But some chess scholars are surprised by the find and doubt that chess could have been introduced to Europe so early in history.
"There has been absolutely no evidence of chess in Europe until the eighth or ninth century A.D., when it came over from North Africa into Spain," says Hanon Russell of the online chess forum Chess Café. "The game is believed to have originated in India around 1,500 years ago."
The disagreement reflects the nebulous history of the game.
A Brahmin’s Invention?
One legend suggests chess was invented by an Indian Brahmin at the court of the Indian King Balhait when the ruler expressed dismay at the prevalence of gambling among his people. At the king's orders, the Brahmin designed the game of chess, called chaturanga, to help enhance people's mental abilities.
Persian texts from A.D. 531 say the game was invented in India and describe its introduction to Persia (currently Iran). The texts suggest early versions of the game were played by dice and sometimes involved four players. The dice added an element of chance to the game of skill. Previously, the oldest recovered chess piece came from Persia and dated to A.D. 790. It features a carved king and an Arabic inscription.
Other historians have argued chess originated in China, where they claim recovered poems and a book of philosophy dating to the second century B.C. mention a version of the game.
Written records have suggested the game arrived in Europe between the eighth and 10th centuries. The much earlier dating of the Albanian piece has led some to wonder if it was actually used in chess.
"Every time someone finds a carved piece doesn't mean it is authentic," said Victor Keith, a chess historian and author of The Illustrated Guide to World Chessmen. "The earliest date I know of to be found in Europe comes from the eighth to 10th century onward. This sounds far to early to me."
Mitchell, however, believes the object is a game piece and he says his team first considered whether the piece could be part of another game. But he points out all other known games of the time, including an early form of backgammon, used stones or simple shapes as playing pieces.
"This is a fairly ornate object," says Mitchell.
The token is made of ivory and was crafted on a lathe — a device that turns an object on its side from a spindle, allowing symmetrical carvings. It's about 1.5 inches high and once stood on five small feet (only four remain). An engraved vine decorates the bottom and remnants of a paste found inside the engraving suggest the pattern was once highlighted by a second color. A Christian cross tops the piece's bulbous, striped center.
The home where the object was recovered featured an upper story lined completely in marble. Mitchell supposes the palatial house may have belonged to a bishop or senator. The city itself was a commercial center and a mecca for culture and arts at the time, featuring statues, a large Greek Roman port and amphitheater.
"This was a Greek-Roman port city with major public buildings, theater and elaborate homes," he says. "It's easy to imagine chess-playing in these homes."