PlayStations From the Past

Until the end of December the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, in Portugal, has an exhibit, “Stones that Play — Ancient Board Games”. If you thought “board games from my grandparents time”, you’re wrong: this is a journey taking us back to Roman times.

The exhibit, “Stones that Play — Ancient Board Games”, designed and first shown back in 2004, was created by the Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon in partnership with the Museum of Lisbon. It aims to establish links between mathematical reasoning and other disciplines such as Archaeology, History, Heritage, Sociology and Anthropology.

The show has been round Portugal, at different institutions, and now the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, in Sintra, close to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, hosts the exhibition until 30 December 2015. That’s where I had a chance to photograph some of the examples of board games carved in stone, PlayStations from the past, I would call them, fully demonstrating that humans like to play and from very early times discovered how entertaining games can be.

The games present, like the Morris, also called Mill (photo opening this article), one of the most popular games throughout the times, reveal us that not much has changed since the very early days: games continue to be a battle for two players, where mental dexterity is key to achieving victory. Not much different, in fact, from what happens on a modern PlayStation.

Nine Men’s Morris, a precursor to Tick-Tack-Toe, is probably one of the oldest games in history, as the first known diagram of the game was found in Egypt, in a temple dating back to 1440 BC, way before the examples mentioned in the exhibit. Similar boards have been found around the world, from Sri Lanka to the United States. The passion for the game was so widely spread that players would carve the board everywhere they could, from seats to walls or even tombstones across England. In Portugal it is known, as Game of the Mill (Jogo do Moinho).

The exhibit offers a view over multiple board games carved in stone, many of them discovered in archaeological excavations, with vast documentation about each board found, its location and historical context. Besides some game related objects from the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas’s collection, the exhibit presents five examples of popular board games carved in stone, displayed over tables, in a clear invitation for visitors to use them to play.

Photographically, the exhibit offers unique perspectives, as the photos published herewith try to demonstrate. It’s challenging not only to document the exhibit but also to explore its potential in pure photographic terms, going beyond the limitations in terms of ambient light, as shown in the image of the hall used to receive the exhibit, and introduce flash as the main source of light, for some creative work around the shapes and textures of the materials.

The contact with the exhibit suggested the potential interest an activity exploring the use of flash can have, as both a way to document, for personal purposes, a slice of History, and to learn, through a practical example, how to control the portable sun a flash can be.

This activity is included in the series One Flash Adventures, a collection of images/activities exploring what can be achieved with a single flash on or away from the camera. The photos here are an example of what can be achieved both with a single flash, either on the camera or used away, controlled with a radio trigger (Phottix Mitros flash + with Odin TCU).

I’ve set up the dates of 5 and 12 December as potential days to organize such an activity, if there is people interested. There is also the option to organize such an activity during the week.

With Christmas round the corner and the exhibit closing on the 30th December, the dates mentioned above might be the only opportunity to explore in a different way a truly unique collection, and advance your knowledge of flash.

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