3800-year-old teen skeleton found buried with fortune-telling game

July 13, 2019
Fortune telling

The Ouija board was invented in 1890 and was probably played by teens at parties from day one. However, that teen fascination with fortune-telling games has been around for thousands of years. Need proof? A skeleton dating back 3,800 years was unearthed recently in Russia and the teen was buried with the animal bone pieces of an ancient fortune-telling game that’s still played in Mongolia today. Did the teen see this coming?

“(The game) was probably the most popular among the kids in the Bronze age.”

Georgy Stukalov, a scientific researcher for the Astrakhan History museum, says the game was discovered next to the remains of a teen (it’s unknown if it was male or female) buried in a fetal position in the Bogomolnye Peski necropolis. This multi-layered burial site is located near the village of Nikolskoye near the Caspian Sea. The remains and the game were buried below layers which recently revealed the 2,000-year-old skeleton and elongated skull of a man who appeared to be laughing. Was he playing the game too?

“And this game – shagai – came to us through the centuries. Even 50 to 60 years ago our granddads and grannies used to play this game.”

If it sounds vaguely familiar, Shagai is thought to have been a predecessor to many throwing games and is played in other parts of the world under the name Knucklebones or Jacks. The knobby shape of the bones may have inspired the 3D asterisks that are modern jacks. In Mongolia where the game is still played with the real thing, the bones are considered to be good luck charms and often given as gifts.

Was the person in the grave playing Shagai for fun or for fortune? Being a teen, it was probably both.

Stukalov explains that the fortune-telling game is called “Shagai,” a name that refers to the astragalus, which is the lower part of the ankle bone (sometimes called the ‘hock’) of a sheep or goat. The four sides of the bone are uniquely shaped — the convex sides are called ‘horse; and ‘sheep’ and are the lucky sides, while the concave faces are ‘goat’ and ‘camel’ and considered unlucky. More than one of the bones are thrown at a time and the up-facing surfaces determine the outcome, moves or fortune, depending on which version of Shagai is being played. In the simple fortune-telling game, rolling four bones and having one of each animal showing is the best (luckiest) roll. Not much is known of the Bronze Age Srubnaya culture which inhabited the area between the 18th and 12th centuries BCE other than it survived on livestock breeding – which explains the plentiful supply of game pieces.

By PAUL SEABURN