The role of astragalus dice in promoting the production of surplus in bronze and iron age Syria-Palestine: a new interpretation for knucklebones

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Knucklebones, objects crafted from a specific ankle bone (the astragalus) of particular species of artiodactyla (cattle, goats, sheep, deer, and others), are evident in the archaeological record from as early as the Neolithic in Anatolia, and possibly the Epi-Paleolithic in Belgium. The majority of these objects are rightly interpreted as gaming pieces by virtue of a myriad of historical and ethnographic parallels. This is true of many of the finds from ancient Syria-Palestine during the Bronze and Iron Ages, which form the focus of this research. Often, single knuckblebones, or small collections of them (usually ten or fewer), are recovered from contexts associated with domestic activities. Such knucklebones are most often unmodified, but many show wear due to prolonged use as dice. Beginning in the Middle Bronze Age, collections of knucklebones in Syria-Palestine changed dramatically. The number of knucklebones found in single deposits is much greater, sometimes reaching the hundreds. Large deposits of knucklebones are not only found in domestic contexts, but also in contexts interpreted as having public, cultic, or funerary functions. This represents a change in the way that ancient Syro-Palestinians utilized knucklebones. The changing role knucklebones played is the subject of the current research. It is this writer's contention that the changes in knucklebone applications can be explained by the examining socio-economic changes that begun during the Middle Bronze Age (circa 2000 BCE) in Syria-Palestine. Specifically, it is hypothesized that knucklebones functioned as tokens representing animals offered in sacrifice to the palace or temple and redistributed in city-wide feasts. Thus, knucklebones reflected status items that promoted the production of surplus in the redistributive economies of ancient Syria-Palestine.

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Archaeology, Middle Eastern studies, Ancient history