Knucklebones:   From Oracles to Games

Though it may seem rather ghoulish to toy with knucklebones taken from the skeletons of various animals, people have actually done it for millenia. Many children, and even some adults, were still doing it during the Regency. And some of those games have come down to modern times, though, for the most part, they are no longer played with pieces of animal skeletons. Should a Regency author be in need of an interesting game for children to play in a story, one of the games played with knucklebones might serve the purpose.

A brief history of knucklebones and some of the games in which they were used . . .

Some scholars have suggested that it is quite possible that knucklebones were in use so early in our history that even Cro-Magnon children may have played with them. The knucklebones used in these games were most often those of sheep, although the knucklebones of goats and calves were also sometimes used. In Ancient Greece and Rome, knucklebones were widely used, as both oracles and game pieces. There are even murals on the walls of some of the buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum which depict people playing games with knucklebones. Similar scenes can be found depicted in art in multiple media in both the Greek and Roman cultures of ancient times, including the images on ceramics, murals and other paintings, and several sculptures.

Adults are believed to have used knucklebones principally as oracle objects. A handful of knucklebones would be tossed into the air and allowed to fall to the ground. Once the tossed bones had fallen and come to rest, the positions in which they fell would have been read as a forecast of future events. One of the earliest known games using knucklebones played by children consisted of tossing a number of bones, usually five, into the air, then attempting to catch them on the back of the same hand. In most versions of the game, if any of the bones dropped to the ground, the player was then to attempt to pick them up without knocking any of the bones already on the back of their hand out of place. Another early game involved a circle drawn in the dust, into which the knucklebones would be tossed. The player’s score was determined by the positions in which the bones fell combined with their distances from the circle in the dust.

It is believed that Ancient Romans carried games using knucklebones with them as they advanced north through the European continent and ultimately, into the British Isles. The games soon became popular with the local people who interacted with the Roman invaders. It is known that games using knucklebones have become common throughout Europe and Britain by the Middle Ages. These games were played by adults and children of both genders. The rules for each game varied from region to region, even from village to village. Sheep were nearly ubiquitous in most of these cultures, so there was no shortage of their knucklebones for use in playing games. Goats and calves might also provide knucklebones as well. There is some suggestion that human knuckle or finger bones were also used from time to time, but the documentation is scarce.

At some point, in Europe, probably in the late Middle Ages, games played with knucklebones by children seem to have forked along gender lines. The games most popular with boys were essentially games of chance, usually played for points. No knucklebone is exactly like any other, though all have four long sides and two short sides. The longer sides consist of a pair of broad edges and a pair of narrow edges. One of the broad edges is concave, while the other is convex. The narrow edges are similarly unique, with one being flat while the other has a noticeable indent. The two short sides of the knucklebones have edges that are either rounded or pointed, thus preventing them from standing on end when they are thrown. Therefore, when tossed into the air, each knucklebone would inevitably fall on one of the long sides. Each of those unique sides was assigned a number, and the number of points assigned to the side that was uppermost when the knucklebone fell was added to the score of the boy who threw that group of knucklebones.

Most games of this counting type were played with a set of five knucklebones, which were tossed into the air together. The numbers assigned to each side of each knucklebone was then totaled to determine the score for that throw. In some versions of the game, a circle might be drawn on the ground, into which the knucklebones were thrown. In addition to the numbers assigned to each side of the knucklebones, there were additional points added, or subtracted, from the player’s throw, based on the distance each knucklebone fell from the drawn line, and whether or not it fell inside or outside of the circle. The number of turns each player was allowed to throw the knucklebones in a given game seems to have varied from place to place, and even from group to group in the same area.

The games played with knucklebones that were most popular among girls were very similar to the game many of us today known as jacks. These games might be played with either six knucklebones or five knucklebones and a stone. Five knucklebones would be tossed onto the ground, then the stone or the extra knucklebone would be thrown up into the air, and before it fell to the ground, the object of the game was to pick up a specified number of knucklebones. The object thrown into the air was known as the jack, which is almost certainly the source of the name of that game. While the jack was in the air, just as in games of jacks today, one knucklebone was picked up, until they were all collected. Next, the jack was thrown up, and two knucklebones had to be picked up and so on, until all five knucklebones had to be picked up during a single toss of the jack. In all versions of the game, if a player did not pick up the requisite number of knucklebones on a toss of the jack, they lost their turn. But in some versions of the game, the player had to start over at the beginning, picking up one knucklebone at a time, while in other versions, their next turn began where they had left off after their last throw.

Various reasons have been advanced for this fork along gender lines in the playing of knucklebone games. The games played by boys would have taught them basic math skills, something which was considered important to young men later in life. In fact, most young boys would not play jacks because they found the game very difficult to play. This is almost certainly due to the fact that girls tend to develop better hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills much earlier than boys. These more developed physical skills gave most girls an edge against boys in any game of jacks, which seems to be the primary reason boys avoided playing the game. And, as it became more fully associated with girls, most boys would not play it solely for that reason. However, there was one version of a game with knucklebones which was played by both boys and girls. This was the ancient game in which five knucklebones were tossed into the air, while the player en devoured to catch them on the back of their hand. In most versions of this game, once all the knucklebones had been caught on the back of the hand, they were again tossed into the air and were to be caught that time with the palm up.

A similar gender fork occurred in the playing of knucklebone games among adults. Men tended to play knucklebones when they became adults much as they had as boys. However, among adults, wagering usually became part of those games. Most adult women, on the other hand, did not play games of jacks with their knucklebones. Rather, in the eighteenth century, they used knucklebones as they had been used in ancient times, to forecast the future. In particular, many young women used knucklebones to help them divine the identity of their future husband and/or the time or place when they would first encounter him. Others, who were already in love, used the bones to help them discover whether or not the man they loved felt the same way about them. There was a wide variation in how the knucklebones were read to determine the future which lay in store for the person who tossed them.

By the Regency, boys were still playing with knucklebones in much the same way as they had been in centuries past. Most games involved tossing a set of five bones into the air and counting the score achieved by the way they fell. Girls were using knucklebones to play games very much like our modern-day game of jacks. However, by the Regency, the jack used in the game was more likely to be a wooden ball than a stone or an additional knucklebone. But, in most cases, the knucklebones had to be picked up while the ball was still in the air, it was not allowed to bounce as is the rubber ball used today when playing jacks. Both boys and girls still played knucklebones games which involved tossing the bones into the air and catching them on the back of the hand, then tossing them again and catching them in the palm.

Some adults in the Regency did play with knucklebones, but, for the most part, it seems to have been men of the lower classes. Most of those games involved throwing the bones and wagering on the scores achieved by the various players. It does appear that at least a few adult women did play with knucklebones, again, usually women of the middle or lower classes. Some of them used the bones as an idle pastime, tossing the bones and catching them on the back of their hand. A traveller to Russia in the year before the Regency noted that this version of knucklebones was a very popular game there. In Europe, including Britain, a few women did still use knucklebones as they had been used in the eighteenth century, to forecast their future, particularly around their love life and/or marriage prospects. There does not seem to have been many instances of the use of knucklebones among the upper classes in Regency Britain.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, there were a host of names used for these various games played with knucklebones. The name jackstones had emerged early in the new century. Another name, dibbs, probably drawn from the older name of dibstones, emerged just before the Regency began. Other older names for these games included hucklebones and fivestones. In Scotland, the game was often called chuck or check stones, while in northern England, it was usually known as snobs. In southern England, the game was sometimes called dalies, while in London, the game was often known as gobs. Just as names varied from place to place, the rules for these games varied widely during the Regency. In general, it seems that each group made up their own rules for playing games with knucklebones. So long as all the players agreed on the rules, there were no problems. However, if players from different locations came together, there could be some issues with regard to the rules under which a given game would be played. If such differences were not ironed out before play began, there could be problems, up to and including arguments or even fisticuffs.

The descendants of knucklebones games in our modern times include dice, that is, small objects with shapes or markings on all sides that are assigned numbers or other discrete meanings which were considered when these objects were thrown, based on how they fell. The other most well known descendant of knucklebones is the game of jacks. During the Regency, the wooden ball which was used in the game was known as the jack, but today, the small six-pointed metal or plastic objects known as jacks were originally modeled on the knucklebones which were used in early versions of the game. However, today, most games of jacks include ten jacks, rather than the five knucklebones which were typically used during the Regency.

Dear Regency Authors, when a scene in an upcoming romance calls for children playing a game, might a game of knucklebones fit the bill? Perhaps a group of girls is playing knucklebones with a wooden ball, or jack, and a little boy is allowed to join in. Will he be heckled or ridiculed by other boys in the vicinity, for playing a girls game? How might the heroine and/or the hero deal with that? Then again, a group of workmen, engaged in a game of knucklebones might get into a fight when the players are from different villages and discover they are all not playing by the same rules. Of course, a character might use knucklebones to divine their romantic future, or that of someone else. Once the cast bones have been read, how might that affect the behavior of the person whose fortune was told? Are there other ways in which a game or two of knucklebones might play a part in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Knucklebones:   From Oracles to Games

  1. the divination aspect sounds as though it might be popular amongst groups of girls perhaps at school, and how the results lead to the way they might act when released upon the world

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