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Historian PhD. Vilma Losytė: “The games of antiquity reflected and changed society. Many technologies are still used today”

The artistic and scientific achievements of ancient Greece still amaze us today with their creativity and ingenuity: the first computer, the prototype steam engine, the first robot, the first self-flying object, the first telegraph that works up to 7 kilometres away from each other. Ancient innovations have had an even greater impact on today’s games industry.

According to a historian Vilma Losytė, ancient games had a ritual meaning. In antiquity, play was an expression of sociality, of integration in an urban community, where each citizen was symbolised by a game piece. Aristotle compared the asocial person to an isolated figure on a game board.

“Archimedes and His Time“ explores the games developed in Antiquity, which later spread throughout Europe, especially among the Vikings. Some of them are still popular in Scandinavia today. Marijus Mažiūnas, a guide at the Energy and Technology Museum,  tells us that one of these games is the still well-known “Polis“.

“In ancient times, games were played in public places: markets, streets, theatres, baths, etc. For the ancient Greeks, the game board was associated with the life and order of the city-state, the polis. Knowing how to play and the rules of the game therefore meant knowing the duties of a citizen of the city-state. One of the most popular board games was called ‘Polis’. The game is played by two players at a time. The aim of both is to prevent the opponent and to be the first to place the pieces in a single circle. Strict rules limit the number of moves and the choices. As in polo, a citizen must be able to use the rules to win,” says M. Mažiūnas.

According to PhD Losytė, ancient games are also special in that they could also become rituals for predicting the future. The practice of predicting the future has been well documented by historians: the future was predicted by rolling the dice five times, sometimes seven times, and the sum of the rolled dice meant a certain prophecy. The numbered texts of the prophecies were inscribed on huge blocks of stone erected in the agora (author’s note: the central squares of the city).

“Prophecies could be not only dice with numbers on them, but also dice with letters inscribed on them. Sometimes the future could be foretold simply by observing children playing, not only in their homes or in the streets, but also near the sanctuary. Today, archaeologists are finding a variety of toys at these sites that were offered to the gods as part of rites of passage, i.e. the transition from child to adult,” says V. Losytė.

Children’s favourite games are almost all played with dice. The Archimedes and His Time exhibition features such games, but they differ because of the different types of dice: four, five or the familiar six edges.

“The sides of the dice had different points and/or names. The winner was the player with the highest number of points. The current six-sided dice, which we still use today, were chosen only by adults who were already playing games of chance,” Mažiūnas explains.

Games were such an important part of ancient Greek life that their elements shaped artistic styles. Dr Losytė reveals that when the Greeks depicted games in art, they gave them a figurative meaning.

“Ancient Greek vase painters used play metaphorically, referring to youth, love, the passage of age, the hobby of competition and play, and the special relationship with chance and risk. For example, the amphora in “Archimedes and His Time“ depicts the characters Achilles and Ajax playing board games. Today, archaeologists count more than 100 such vases depicting the same theme – the heroes playing board games – but the meaning of this scene is not entirely clear,” she says.

For more information on games and other ancient Greek inventions, see in exhibition “Archimedes and his time”.

The exhibition runs until 24th of November at the Energy and Technology  Museum.

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