Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Dice and Game Pieces Found in Utah Cave Shed Light on Prehistoric Gambling

A cave on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake is giving archaeologists a rare glimpse into a seldom-studied aspect of life in the ancient West — prehistoric gambling.
Researchers exploring the cave, known simply as Cave 1, have identified hundreds of dice, hoops, carved sticks and other trinkets used in indigenous games of chance and skill.
Dice-and-Gaming-Sticks found in Cave 1, Utah
Excavations have revealed hundreds of gaming pieces, including these split-cane dice and split sticks, which were used in dice and guessing games, archaeologists say. (Photo courtesy Ives and Yanicki)
Based on what they’ve found so far, they project that there are more than 10,000 such items still waiting to be uncovered, making it likely the largest deposit of ancient gambling artifacts ever found in the western U.S.
And it’s only part of the peculiar bounty that archaeologists have uncovered there.
Since the 1930s, Cave 1 has proven to hold a profusion of artifacts — including piles of butchered bison and elk bones andhundreds of moccasins, fashioned mostly for children — most of which date to a span of just 20 to 40 years in the late 13th century.
Now, archaeologists at the University of Alberta and Brigham Young University are studying the gambling artifacts — discovered both in earlier digs and in recent excavations — in an attempt to piece together the story of Cave 1’s inhabitants: members of an obscure culture known as the Promontory.
“The numbers and diversity of gaming artifacts that we see in the Promontory record are unparalleled in western North America,” said Dr. John Ives, an archaeologist who has been researching the Promontory cave complex for years.
“This to me can be seen as the intersection of three factors: remarkable preservation, a cave population that was thriving during its 20- to 40-year stay, and a real cultural predilection for gaming activities.”
Indeed, Ives added, gaming may have been more than just a predilection.
It may actually have been a useful tool in an epic migration that researchers believe the Promontory people undertook, from their native land in the Canadian Subarctic to their new homes in the American Southwest.
“These gaming artifacts reflect an important strategy of interaction in a tumultuous world, where people were negotiating new relationships with each other,” Ives said.
Promontory Cave Utah
The view from Promontory Cave 1 in Utah, where excavations in the 1930s and again in the 2010s turned up “exceedingly abundant” deposits of artifacts. (Courtesy Dr. Jack Ives)
Ives and his colleagues have already teased out some compelling chapters of the Promontory story from the heaps of animal remains and children’s footwear unearthed in Cave 1.
These artifacts suggest that this group was thriving in growing numbers in the late 1200s — even when other cultures, like the nearbyFremont, who lived just a few kilometers away, had given up farming and were struggling to forage during a time of drought.
“In North America, the 13th century saw perhaps unprecedented turmoil, brought about by complex environmental and social factors, one of them apparently being a severe drought in the last quarter of the 13th century,” Ives said.
“But the Promontory Culture cave inhabitants were well clothed and well fed.
“As nearly as we can tell, surrounding Fremont populations were not doing well and were likely to be disintegrating.”
So one theory to explain the preponderance of gambling gear in Cave 1 is that wagering was simply a form of entertainment for the Promontory, a luxury enjoyed by people with resources to bet and time to spend.
This recreational take on gaming seems to be supported by the fact that most of the game pieces are dice, made from split pieces of cane, one side being decorated with cut or burned lines, the other side plain.
Many of these dice were discovered near the entrance of the cave, Ives pointed out, around a large central hearth, typically seen as a social, domestic space. Source: Western Digs for more

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