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First Female Gambler Found?


26 October 2005

By Jennifer Viegas,

Discovery News

(THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL) -- The remains of a Persian woman who lived 3,000 years ago were found buried next to 600 pieces of an ancient "gambling game," according to a recent Cultural Heritage News press release from Iran.

Archaeologists excavated the woman at Gohar Tepe in Mazandaran Province, Iran, near the Caspian Sea. Exploration of the site is not yet finished, but it already has yielded a number of discoveries, including the woman with the game, called Ghap, which was played by tossing sheep knucklebones.

"So many pieces have never been found from one single grave; moreover, with the large number of potsherds found in the tomb, we assume the woman to have had a special social status," said Ali Mahforouzi, who is leading the excavation.

Instead of a shyster, she may have been a collector, according to the CHN report. It mentions that all of the game pieces are the same size, suggesting she could have gathered them for a keepsake collection.

The bones also are pierced, indicating they could have doubled as jewelry since she might have strung some and worn them as a necklace.

Hairpins and two dress pins were found on the woman's chest. At burial, she likely wore a dress that has since eroded and had her hair done up in the back. The archaeologists also found a "huge jug with some measurement scales" in her tomb. They are not yet certain how these objects were used.

Shapour Suren-Pahlav, co-founder of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, an educational program based in the U.K., told Discovery News that he does not believe the woman was a gambler. He said the archaeologists "have forgotten to observe the archaeological and historical context of Ghap and Ghap-bazi (Ghap play)."

He explained, "Ghap-bazi was quite common among the Iranian children, even up to late 1970s in Iran. It is possible that a child or children placed the Ghaps in the grave as offerings to their dead mother, or a female favorite relative. Nonetheless, one only can hypothesize about this, since there is no evidence to clarify the function of the Ghaps in that grave."

Suren-Pahlav added that the game is no longer played in Iran's major cities, but it might still be played in small villages and towns.

At the Gohar Tepe cemetery, researchers also found a couple from around the same Iron Age period buried together in a joint grave. The condition of their bones and their fetal, bowed positions suggests to Mahforouzi that they died simultaneously, perhaps in an accident.

Traces of unidentified fabric dating to the same period were unearthed in what appears to have been an ancient weavers' shop, according to CHN. Jointly broken ceiling tiles suggest the structure collapsed, probably from a fire. Since no corpse was found in the ruins, Mahforouzi said the building must have fallen when no one was inside.

Well-preserved 3,000-year-old "humped bull statuettes" also were unearthed at Gohar Tepe.

"One of the statuettes is intact," said Mahforouzi. "Its very realistic shape shows the expertise of its creator. The statuette has been baked very well and burnished, probably with a piece of cloth-like material, in order to give it a sparkling surface."

Since the bull representations were very realistic at a time when abstract art was popular in the region, he theorizes they were used as rhytons, or ritual pouring vessels, during religious ceremonies.

He said the artifacts provide evidence that early individuals at the site, which is very close to the Fertile Crescent where agriculture likely originated, worshipped oxen, bulls and cows. These animals were, and still are, regarded as symbols of hard work and fertility.

"Even today we can see some kind of respect toward the animals in the region," he said.

The Gohar Tepe dig is scheduled to continue for the next two months.


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