The Origin of Chess: from archaeology

L'origine des échecs : d'après l'archéologie


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Obviously, archaeological findings are precious for history. If boards are seldom conserved, many pieces of any time and any place have been found by archaelogist missions.

However, some difficulties may occur: one is to recognize a Chess piece among diverse artifacts. It is generally accepted that finding more than 1, or 2, or 3 different pieces of an apparently same set helps in convincing it is a Chess set. Indeed, small figurines can be other things than Chess pieces: amulets, voting statues, toys, ... On the other hand, some coins or statues can be taken for Chess pieces instead of something else. A famous example, unfortunately, is the Butrint piece which has most probably nothing to do with Chess but that was quickly announced as the first chessmen ever found.

Persian Archaeological Findings

Let's start with two pieces from Dalverzin-Tepe, Uzbekistan. Dated from 2nd century AD, they represent an elephant and a bull. The date is very early and there is no bull in Chess set, as far as we know. So, those pieces are generally not accepted as Chess pieces. Anyway, there are worth mentioning.

Up to now, the oldest extant Chess pieces are those found in Afrasiab in 1977, near Samarkand, in the ancient Sogdiana, today in Uzbekistan. They are seven small figurines made of ivory: 2 foot soldiers, 1 Knight, 1 mounted elephant, 1 kind of feline animal also mounted and 2 different chariots. Most probably dated from 7th century, they have been completed by other isolated finds coming from the ancient Silk Road. This famous trade road was crossing, at these times, lands inhabited by people speaking Persian dialects. Sogdians and Bactrians for instance, were controling the trades with many posts up to the capital of the Chinese empire.

There is another set which surfaced in 2006 in provenance from North Afghanistan. It is made of 5 pieces rather similar in style to the Afrasiab set. They now belong to a private collector and where supposed (in 2006) to be expertised (result not known to me yet). North Afghanistan is ancient Bactria, also a Persian land. Of course, that set needs to be confirmed as genuine. Its period and its provenance have also to be confirmed.

In overall, there are quite a lot of Chess pieces dated from 7th to 8th century and coming from "East Persia" lands all along the Silk Road, from East Iran to Serindia (now Chinese Xinjiang) through Bactria (Afghanistan) and Sogdiana (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) which were all regions of Persian dialects, more or less under the Sassanian empire rules.

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Pieces from the Afrasiab set (Uzbekistan, estimated 700-761 AD)

Indian Archaeological Findings

 In comparison, India is poor. The wet weather and the use of perishable materials can explain why excavations have been less successful than in drier Central Asia.

This subject has always been very controversial as many people want to see India demonstrated as the Chess cradle at any cost. Some saw Chess pieces in the Lothal findings dating from the Harappa period (1900 BC !). It is true that they are intriguing but they can be anything, toys or something else rather Chess. Similarly, the bas-reliefs in Bodhgayâ and Bhârut which show some kind of "chessboards" have finally be identified as representation of dice games with no relationship with Chess (Bock-Raming, 2000).

An ivory piece representing a Chariot has been found in Mântai in Sri Lanka (van Lohuizen de Leeuw, 1981, please contact me if you have a clear picture) dated 2nd or 3rd century. However, it remains an isolated piece and its dating would deserve a re-examination. Actually, many artifacts, small terracottas exist in several Indian museums which could have served as gaming pieces. If they could be proven to have been Chess piece, it would be a very strong argument to support that Chess was invented in India. For this reason a team of mainly German specialists went to North India to inquiry on this topic in 2007. A lot of press communiqués were released just before or during their expedition (example here) but, to our knowledge, no scientific report with the result of this mission has been released yet (Eder, 2007 is the only document I have). My personal opinion of this is still the same: it constitutes a serious track of investigation but it has not been demonstrated for the moment that those artifacts are Chess pieces. (See here another doubting opinion, from For the time being, there is no recognized ancient Chess pieces excavated in India.

Chinese Archaeological Findings

So far, China is very disappointing as far as very old Chess pieces are concerned (Xinjiang is excluded from this section, being culturally attached to the East Persia area at this period. Pieces found in the Tarim area are very similar to Afrasiab ones). Among the thousands of antiquities and artifacts discovered up to now, there is nothing similar to Chess pieces. Then, it very likely that 3D figurines, figurative or abstract, where never adopted in the Chinese empire.

This is an interesting element: if Chess came into China as a game played like in Persia or India, it must have been changed very quickly into the Xiangqi form because there is no trace at all. Or, this is not the scenario, Chatrang-Chaturanga did not come in China. This will be discussed later on.

Chinese people play Xiangqi with tokens, not with 3D figurines. Those tokens are round, generally made of wood, and bear the name of the piece written on one side. The problem with wood is to be perishable. Moreover, the ink used to write on it does vanish after few years. Those difficulties may explain why old wooden Xiangqi sets are so rare. There is one found in a wreck from Southern Song times (1127-1279). This is already a quite late date.

A little earlier, from Northern Song times, Chongning period (1102-1106), some sets of copper, bronze or ceramic Xiangqi pieces have survived. Still, the date is late in comparison with pieces from Central Asia. But, we should be careful: almost all known sets are complete, or quasi-complete and in good shape. They are so ressembling to monetary coins that it is feared that a lot of poor condition, isolated pieces, have escaped attention. Coins collectors do know what they call "charms": they are Xiangqi pieces. One che (chariot) has been found in Chongqing in 2001. Dated from the 3rd century: this would deserve a confirmation!

Set of Xiangqi pieces found in Kaifeng (circa 1105).


From archaeology, the Persian speaking countries of Central Asia are in a very strong position. If India was the place of birth of Chess, then the complete absence of excavated pieces is surprising. The same can be said about China. It is true that both India and China museums may have pieces in their reserves that have drawn the attention so far. It is true that both India and China have arguments to explain why there so poor in term of Chess pieces. Efforts are continuing with India, it is hoped that someone will also bring new elements with China.

Nevertheless, with the elements in our hands today, we attribute the points as follows:

  • Persia: 3.5 points
  • India: 1 point.
  • China: 0.5 point



 Les arguments présentés sur cette page sont développés dans L'Odyssée des jeux d'échecs, (Praxeo Editions, 2010).