Girl Playing Astragaloi (the knucklebone game) at Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany

Welcome to “Art, Culture & Books” with me Anthony King. Today I’ll be taking you to see the Girl Playing Astragaloi (the knucklebone game) which is from Rome, Italy, specifically from the Eastern slope of Caelian Hill. It’s marble from around 150 AD and it’s currently at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.

This Hellenistic sculpture, one among six Roman replicas sharing a common theme, captures the essence of a seated female engaged in a genuine game. Perched on the floor, legs drawn up, she steadies herself with the left hand while tossing two knuckles with the right. The intricacies of the game are real; each side of the knucklebone holds a specific value. These knucklebones, fashioned from the ankle bones of sheep or goats, could also take more refined forms in ivory, bronze, or terracotta. It was a pastime enjoyed by children, adolescent girls, and young women alike. The museum label reads:

“The motif of the seated young girl dates back to a late Hellenistic model, which in the Roman version was supplemented by the game gesture. The knucklebone (astragalus) game often also depicted on funerary reliefs and the portrait-like features of the girl indicate a sepulchral purpose of the sculpture”

Around 350 B.C.E., scholars believe the image of the knucklebone player made its debut in terracotta. While an early example can be found at the British Museum, its popularity surged during the Hellenistic Period, notably with the rise of Tanagra-style production in Athens and its subsequent spread across Greece. The choice of the crouching figure in this pose wasn’t just a nod to the game’s popularity but also a deliberate showcase of intricate folds and drapery patterns, highly valued by the artisans behind these figurines who are called “coroplasts”.

It’s said that in the Louvre, a variant of this sculpture portrays the subject as an adult, but tales suggest that both restorers altered its original form. Who know’s whether that is actually true though

As confirmed by the museum label it seems to be a funerary statue for a child. We see her looking but not in the direction of the game but with a slight melancholy through a gentle facial expression. She looks sad doesn’t she?

By Anthony King (c)