The Things of Warsaw – core exhibition / Room of Archaeology

A game punishable by excommunication

Nine Men’s Morris is one of the oldest and most widespread games in the world. The date and time of its creation remain unknown. Its earliest traces are the carvings made in roof tiles of the Temple of Gourna, erected ca. 1440 BC. It is certain that numerous variations of Nine Men’s Morris, with the main difference between them being the design of the board, were known in the territory of the Roman Empire in the first centuries AD. The game became particularly popular in medieval Europe, where it was also played with the use of dice.

The game invoked strong emotions in its players, often exacerbated by the consumption of alcohol. Games often culminated in fist fights, with some unfortunate souls ending up being struck over the head with the wooden board. Sometimes the boards were also made of stone. The wooden ones soon started to be available in a folding version, which made them easy to carry around. The game soon came under scrutiny of the Catholic Church, which banned it in 18th century, believing it to give off a strong “whiff of sulfur.” A person playing Nine Men’s Morris, therefore, could lose not only their fortune, but also their head. The clerics caught playing the game after the mass in the clergy house, or sometimes even in the local tavern, were punished by excommunication.

The small board, dated from the 18th century, was carved on the surface of a ceramic floor tile. The design was carved into moist clay which was then fired. The board was used to play the variation of the game which was most popular in Europe at the time.

The tile, preserved with minor defects, is quite unique. It was found during excavation works in the area of the Władysław Tower in the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Archeological and architectonic works were initiated in 1971, when a decision was made to reconstruct the Castle destroyed during WWII. Initially, due to the swift progression of construction works and the large scope of research, all academic research facilities from Warsaw were involved in the project. From 1973 up until 1984, when the Castle was opened for general public, excavation works were carried out independently by archeologists from the Historical Museum of Warsaw, currently the Museum of Warsaw, who kept on discovering more and more facts and relics documenting the earliest periods of the existence of the settlement of Warsaw and its castle.