It might not look like much to the untrained eye, but this square piece of sandstone (below) could be the world’s oldest known chess piece.
John Oleson, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada presented his interpretation of the rock piece at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research on November 21.
Based on previous discoveries in the Near East, his analysis suggests that the small square stone was once used as a rook (or castle) piece for a chessboard. Unlike our modern idea of a rook piece, looking like a tall medieval tower, early Islamic rooks resembled an alter or a chariot.
Some of the earliest references to chess playing in the Islamic world can be found in texts that date back to 643 CE and the game was popular by the end of the Umayyad caliphate in the 8th century CE.
The piece was first discovered in 1991 at the site of Humayma, an Early Islamic trading post in the early 7th century found along the Via Nova Traiana, an ancient Roman road that served as a bustling trade route across the Middle East. Based on this provenance, Oleson presumes the chess piece dates to a similar time.
At present, this is just Oleson’s own interpretation, so further work is needed to verify the nature of the stone object. However, as it stands, this has the potential to be the earliest known example of a chess piece.
“If the identification as a chess piece is correct, it would be the earliest known physical example for the simplified, abstract design, and possibly the earliest known example of a chess piece altogether,” Oleson explains in an abstract of the research.
Early incarnations of the game have been around for millennia, but chess as we know it perhaps originated in Southeast Asia, likely in present-day India around 1,500 years ago. From here, it drifted westwards through the migration of diplomats and the movement of trade.
Some of the most famous – and certainly the most valuable – historical chess pieces are the so-called Lewis chessmen. The ornate walrus ivory pieces were carved at some point in the 12th or 13th century in Norway. In July 2019, a newly identified missing piece, the equivalent of a rook, sold at auction for £735,000 (~$946,800).