Game of the Month: Knucklebones

by Dagonell the Juggler

Playing with knucklebones is an ancient pastime. The British Museum has two sculptures in its collection which are pictured with this article. The first is two girls playing with knucklebones. It was made in Greece, approximately 330 B.C. The second is two boys fighting with knucklebones at their feet suggesting that the fight may have been over a game of knucklebones. The statue is from 1st century Rome.

The name 'knucklebones' is a slight misnomer. The actual bones involved are the ankle bones or 'tali' of a sheep. They have four long sides; flat, concave, convex, and sinuous, between two rounded ends. When rolled, the bones seldom land on the rounded ends. Values may be assigned to each long side and they may be played like a dice game. The third illustration is a pair of actual sheep's "knucklebones".

The game is mentioned in a letter by the Roman Emperor Augustus which is quoted by Suetonius (Augustus 71,1ss). The sides had the values 1, 3, 4, and 6. The highest possible throw is a "Venus", named after the Roman Goddess of Love and consisted of each of four dice showing a different side. The first player to throw a Venus, wins the pot. Other throws were named after other Roman gods and heroes, but no mention is made of their values or combinations. Four one's is called a 'canis' or 'dog' and anyone throwing one must add a denarius (small silver coin) to the pot. A lone six, not including a Venus, is a 'senio' and the penalty is the same. Little else of the game is known.

In "Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland", the sheep's ankle bones are called "hucklebones" and are used to play "Fivestones". The description of Fivestones is nearly identical to the modern game of "Jacks" with the substition of a knucklebone for the rubber ball and not allowing it to touch the ground. The fourth illustration is a detail from Brugel's _Children's Games_ which was painted in 1560. Given that there are only three bones on the ground and one little girl is throwing a bone up, it's more likely that they're playing "Fivestones" instead of "Knucklebones".

From Gomme's description of "Fivestones": "He took all five pieces in the palm of the hand first, then threw them up and caught them on the back of the hand, and then from the back of the hand into the palm. Four of the stones were then thrown on the ground; the fifth was thrown up, one stone being picked up from the ground, and the descending fifth stone caught in the same hand; the other three pieces were next picked up in turn. Then two then three, then all four at once, the fifth stone being thrown up and caught on the back of the hand, and then thrown from the back and caught in the palm. When he dropped one, he picked it up between his outstretched fingers while the other stones remained on the the back of the hand; then he tossed and caught it likewise. Then after throwing up the five stones and catching them on the back of the hand and the reverse, all five being kept in the palm, one was thrown up, and another deposited on the ground before the descending stone was caught. This was done to the three others in turn. Then with two at a time twice, the one and three, then all four together, then from the palm to the back of the hand, and again to the palm. This completed one game. If mistakes were made, another player took the stones. Marks were taken for successful play."


The British Museum --

Gomme, Alice Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (London; Thames and Hudson; 1894; 2 vol.; ISBN 0-500-27316-2; $18.95)

The Elliott Avedon Games Museum --

Portman, Paul Pieter Brueghel's Children's Games (Berne; Hallwall Press; 1964)

The Realm of Incendium (Sheepbones picture) --