Game's up for secrets of the grave

A board game has been interrupted 2,000 years after the first moves were made.

Excavations of a Celtic tomb near Colchester, Essex, have unearthed an ancient equivalent of chess or draughts, with most of the pieces still in their starting locations and two in their probable opening-move positions.

It is believed to be the first time that such a find has been uncovered. Ralph Jackson, a British Museum curator who has seen the find, said it was unprecedented.

It's not yet clear whether the game is of Roman or native Celtic origin but archaeologists believe it may be a version of the Roman game ludus latrunculorum or "soldiers". The hinged wooden board appears to have consisted of 96 squares and to have had 20 glass pieces - 10 blue counters on one side and 10 white ones on the other.

Fragments of the board, entombed for use by its owner in the after-life, still survive because corrosion products from its copper alloy corner brackets have inhibited bacterial activity which would otherwise have destroyed the wood. Its owner might well have been a board-game fanatic - his relatives placed his ashes in a bag in the middle of the board.

He was almost certainly a high-ranking retainer of a first century AD Celtic prince of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe and might have been the prince's personal doctor.

Together with the game and ashes, the excavators - led by archaeologist Philip Crummy and financed by the quarry company Tarmac - found what could well be a small medical kit - two pairs of tweezers, a pair of forceps, a knife and a probe. They also unearthed eight large metal rods which may also be some sort of game or possibly equipment for fortune-telling.

"These excavations are shedding rare new light on the good life enjoyed by those native British aristocrats who chose to collaborate with the Roman conquerors," said Mr Crummy.

When the owner of the game died in around AD50, Colchester, known as Camulodunum,was the capital of Roman Britain.

Leading article, page 15

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