Ur – Lesson Plan 1 (College Level)

Object Biographies: Random number generators between humans, gods, and prophecy.

Learning objectives:

  • Gain an understanding of the processes of accessing ancient cultural narratives through four complementary avenues: materiality, gameplay, ancient texts, and the ancient practices of divination with dice.
  • Integrate the insights gained experientially, through playing the game, with perspectives from scholarly articles, ancient texts from multiple cultures, and the narratives that emerge from analysis of the different materials, forms, technologies and cultural uses of random number generators.
  • Gain insight into the seriousness of game play, as reflected in the intersection of dice and ritual.
  • De-essentialize the concept of random number generators, positioning astragali as gifts, objects of adornment, and votives to the gods; consider these as comparanda for the lapis lazuli dice included in the digital version of the game.
  • Refine conceptions of materiality as emergent, adaptive, and culturally specific.


Lesson Steps:

  1. Read selections of scholarly articles and ancient texts (see bibliography below).
    • Sources: See bibliography below.
    • Points to consider:
      • Pay particular attention to the relationship between these objects, as transformed and recollected animal bones, and the forms of divination that drew from the freshly slaughtered animal.
      • The capacity of these objects to accumulate stories through their life use, through such activities as repeated game play, gifting, and votive practice, should come to the fore.
      • Aspects of materiality to consider include origin and treatment of materials, skeuomorphic substitutions, uses as jewelry and grave gifts, storage, different ways of throwing, and the ritual practices of divination. 
  2. Play Ur, a digital version of The Royal Game of Ur on Steam.
    • Sources:
    • Points to consider:
      • As participants play the game, they find themselves speaking in words drawn from or inspired by poetry of the Ancient Near East. 150 such examples are included in the game.
  3. In group discussion, compare and contrast the stories and meanings accessed through:
    • (1) the materiality of random number generators
    • (2) the processes of game play – the stakes, the competition, the emotional highs and lows
    • (3) the texts which accompany the players as they move along
    • (4) examples of oracular responses to inquiries carried out through dice in the ancient world.

Resource Bibliography:

  • David, F.N. “Studies in the History of Probability and Statistics I. Dicing and Gaming,”  Biometrika 41, no 1-2, 1-15.
  • Douglas, Bronwen and Chris Ballard. 2022. “Contact tracing: The Materiality of Encounters,” History and Anthropology1: 1-16
  • Gilmour, Garth H.   “The Nature and Function of Astragalus Bones from Archaeological Contexts in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean,”  Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16.2: 167-175
  • Graf, Fritz.   “Rolling the Dice for an Answer,” In S.I. Johnston, P.T. Struck (ed.s). Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, ed.  51-97.
  • Palka, Joel W. “Not Just Counter: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East,”  JAMT 28: 414-445.
  • Purcell, Nicholas. 1995. “Literate games: Roman Urban Society and the Game of Alea,” Past and Present 147: 3-37.
  • Schöningh, Ferdinand.   “Dice, Stars and Names: Women and Technical Divination in the Dead Sea Scrolls,”  Journal of Ancient Judaism 12: 48-70.
  • Susnow, Matthew, Wayne Horowitz, Naama Yahalom-Mack.2021. “Perforated Astragali in the Levant and Four Babylonian Omens,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies1: 91-100.
  • Taggar-Cohen, Ada.   “The Casting of Lots among the Hittites in Light of Ancient Near Eastern Parallels,” JANES 29/1: 97–103.

Ancient Text Bibliography:

See for the sources below: Leslie Kurke, “Ancient Greek Board Games and How to Play Them”, Classical Philology 94 (1999): 247-67.

  • Herodotus 1.94
  • Gorgias fr. B 11a.30 DK, on Palamedes
  • Sophokles fr. 479 R
  • Pausanias 7.25
  • Athenaeus Deipnosophistae16f-17b
  • Diogenes Laertius 9.3, on Herakleitos
  • Scholia Platonica, ed. W.C. Greene, Ann Arbor 1981), 456-7.

Lesson Assessment:

Assess this assignment based on the following.

  • Group participation in discussions.
  • Individual participation in playing the game.