Senet is one of the oldest known board games. Fragmentary boards that could be senet have been found in First Dynasty burials in Egypt, c. 3100 BC. A hieroglyph resembling a senet board appears in the tomb of Merknera (3300–2700 BC). The first unequivocal painting of this ancient game is from the Third Dynasty tomb of Hesy (c. 2686–2613 BC). People are depicted playing senet in a painting in the tomb of Rashepes, as well as from other tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (c. 2500 BC). The oldest intact senet boards date to the Middle Kingdom, but graffiti on Fifth and Sixth Dynasty monuments could date as early as the Old Kingdom.
At least by the time of the New Kingdom in Egypt (1550–1077 BC), senet was conceived as a representation of the journey of the ka (the vital spark) to the afterlife. This connection is made in the Great Game Text, which appears in a number of papyri, as well as the appearance of markings of religious significance on senet boards themselves. The game is also referred to in chapter XVII of the Book of the Dead.
Senet also was played by people in neighboring cultures, and it probably came to those places through trade relationships between Egyptians and local peoples. It has been found in the Levant at sites such as Arad and Byblos, as well as in Cyprus. Because of the local practice of making games out of stone, there are more senet games that have been found in Cyprus than have been found in Egypt.
The senet gameboard is a grid of 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten. A senet board has two sets of pawns (at least five of each). Although details of the original game rules are a subject of some conjecture, senet historians Timothy Kendall and R. C. Bell have made their own reconstructions of the game. These rules are based on snippets of texts that span over a thousand years, over which time gameplay is likely to have changed. Therefore, it is unlikely these rules reflect the actual course of ancient Egyptian gameplay. Their rules have been adopted by sellers of modern senet sets.
In a presentation to the XX Board Games Studies Colloquium at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Espen Aarseth asked if the game Senet could be said to still exist, given that the rules were unknown. In response, Alexander de Voogt of the American Museum of Natural History pointed out that games did not have a fixed set of rules, but rules varied over time and from place to place. Moreover, many players of games, even today, do not play (or sometimes do not even know) the "official rules".
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