Scientists Find Oldest Chess Piece

ByABC News
August 5, 2002, 12:00 PM

Aug. 12 -- 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.

Earlier Origins?

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 Brahmins 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.