Sunday, March 14, 2010

Did the ancient Egyptians invent bowling?

In histories of bowling, it is commonly claimed that the origins of the sport can be traced back over 5,000 years to ancient Egypt. It is not difficult to find various accounts like this one from the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame:

A British anthropologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, discovered in the 1930's a collection of objects in a child's grave in Egypt that appeared to him to be used for a crude form of bowling. If he was correct, then bowling traces its ancestry to 3200 BC.

Here's a similar account from

In 1930 the British anthropologist Sir Flinders Petrie and his team of archaeologists discovered all sorts of primitive bowling balls, bowling pins and other materials in the grave of an Egyptian boy from 3200 BC. It appears that the ancient Egyptians played a primitive form of bowling and that bowling is more than 5200 years old.

Being an anthropologist myself, I thought I would look into the validity of these claims, which have become so pervasive as to be treated as settled fact. It did not take me long to find the primary source for the Egyptian bowling story. It is from the monograph Naqada and Ballas 1895 by W. M. Flinders Petrie and J. E. Quibell, published by Bernard Quaritch in 1896. You can read the monograph here if you are interested. There is one obvious falsehood to the standard narrative of bowling's origin. The find did not occur in 1930 nor the 1930's. This book was published in 1896 and concerned fieldwork that took place in 1895. Flinders Petrie did not even work in Egypt in the 1930's; from the mid-1920's onward, he worked in Palestine and Jordan.

In the 1895 field season, Sir Flinders Petrie excavated the cemetery at the site of Naqada, and Quibell worked at the nearby site of Ballas. Between the two sites, they unearthed more than 3,000 graves, a huge number by modern archaeological standards for a single field season. Naqada is on the western bank of the Nile in east central Egypt. The archaeological remains from the site span some 1,400 years dating between ca. 6,400 and 5,000 BP (before present). In Grave No. 100, Petrie did indeed find some interesting objects associated with the remains of a child. Rather than summarizing it myself, I'll let you read his words from p. 35:

And from Plate VII, here is how Petrie envisioned these objects in use:
Well, the first thing to point out is that the balls in this image are marble-sized, which gives very different meanings to the phrases "bowling balls" and "bowling pins". In fact, I was able to find a very low quality image of the actual items, shown to the right. Second, this reconstruction, which very much looks like some form of bowling, is Petrie's best guess for how all of these objects could have been used in a single activity. I should note that they were not discovered in this arrangement, and the board on which they sit was inferred; it was not found. Also, we have no idea if these items were ever intended to be used together. We don't even know if they were gaming pieces. They were also discovered with a chipped stone knife and spear points, which are not included in the reconstruction. Finally, I should note that to my knowledge, no one has ever discovered another set of items like these in one place. In other words, this is a unique find. Even if Petrie was correct about how these items were used, this was not something commonly done in Egypt.

I must admit that I find his reconstruction compelling, but is there some other plausible explanation for what these items represent? Absolutely, we could come up with many. Given their context, an interpretation of child's toys is not unreasonable. For example, the marbles might simply be marbles, which have as many uses as a child can imagine. What about the "pins?" Petrie notes that "they can only stand on their flat ends", but if they are spinning, they can stand on their pointed ends. Could they be tops? Their basic geometry is very reminiscent of wooden tops, like the one shown to the left.

Have spinning tops been recovered from other contexts in Egyptian archaeology? I was surprised to not only discover that they are not uncommon, but also that one was in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. On the right is a picture of King Tut's spinning top made of ebony with inlay of faience and ivory.

So, where does this leave us? Well, the story that has commonly been told about the origins of bowling is not entirely false. Flinders Petrie did discover items in a child's grave in Egypt, which he reconstructed to have been used in a game that could be construed as crude form of bowling, although he related these items to the game of skittles, best played with a sack of sweet chewy "fruit" flavored candies. One obviously incorrect part of the story is the year of discovery, which was 1895, not the 1930's.

But Petrie's interpretation is highly speculative and should not be treated as fact. In that light, I very much like the wording on the website from the International Bowling museum, which begins with "If he was correct...", though they need to change the date of discovery to reflect the facts.

Finally, I should note that Petrie's skittle/bowling hypothesis is testable. These artifacts are curated at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University (not to be confused with the Assholian Museum at Cambridge). If Petrie was correct about the function of the objects, it would be expected that the "pins" should show clear pitting from the impact of the marbles and other "pins," just as actual bowling pins do. If they are tops, as I have suggested, they should show very different patterns of wear (circumferential scratches). Of course, we must also keep in mind that these items could have served some entirely different purpose or purposes. This sounds like a marvelous study for an undergraduate in archaeology at Oxford to undertake. We could finally get to the bottom of this Egyptian "bowling" business.


  1. Did you just ask me to go on a fieldwork expedition to Egypt this summer? I graciously accept.

    You grab the plane tickets, surveying gear, and food. I'll grab the golf clubs, Matty and Zinkerbell, and some PBR.

  2. Yeah. I'm sure NSF would gladly fund this expedition.


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