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Dominos – A revised history

This one was submitted to the Editor General on 2 July, 2007 and was printed in the subsequent edition of The International Routier, back in it’s dead-treeware days. Vanity presses me to reproduce it here.

At the start of chapter 3 of the forthcoming second edition of the Routier Gaming Manual, I pontificate:

There are no references to dominos in western sources before the middle of the 18th century, when domino games appear to have been played in Italy and France. They are kept in this volume mainly so the Routiers have something to do with their dominoes.

And fair enough too, this is the view held by most serious scholars of the introduction of different games into Western Europe. Strutt (1801) says, “Domino… a very childish sport imported from France a few years back”. My innocent enough enquiry to the Mary Rose Trust in 1996 about the photo above, simply captioned Domino found on the Mary Rose, resulted in the photo being taken down from the site and a personal apology to me from one of the senior archaeologists.

Early 18th century bone domino found in The Solent, allegedly lost from a French prison hulk… or is it?
Photo from the Mary Rose Trust

I scored some really nice archaeological drawings of combs, arrow spacers and book covers for my efforts. In 2003, I also queried a domino on display in the Southampton Archaeological Museum labelled as 17th century, pointing out their own database showed it as probably 18th century. Here I must admit to being a serial offender. I do have a nice letter from Warwick Castle thanking me for the information I sent them challenging their dating of a leather jack on stylistic grounds.


The Southampton domino in question. It’s 14mm wide and 23mm long so almost exactly the same size as the Mary Rose find.

Photo (and attitude) by me.

There’s only one problem… I just got my copy of the Mary Rose personal effects book and now I have to rewrite the intro. They obviously prepared for people like me, the drawing of artefact 79A0665, Single Bone Domino, (complete, 25.8 x 13.3mm) comes with the accompanying text: “… was found in an insecure context on the Upper deck area… It is likely, given the provenance of the object, that the single Mary Rose domino post-dates the wreck.”

So, having safely covered themselves against future emails, they fire a full broadside. “However, dominos from such earlier contexts are attested, though rare. One such with a drilled number was found in Oxford and was thought to come from a context ‘no later than the sixteenth or early seventeenth-century’ (Henig, 1976, 218).” [Their emphasis]. They continue, “… The form of the Mary Rose domino closely resembles post-medieval examples from Plymoth (seventeenth century; Fairclough, 1976. 129 no. 39), Southampton (probably eighteenth century; Platt and Coleman-Smith 1975, fig. 249 no. 1950)… Not satisfied with that, they then drag out a textual reference relevant to date of the ship. “An early reference to a game called dominoes occurs during Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings against Queen Catherine of Aragon when he resumed his gaming habit, and in January 1530 he lost £450 at dominoes at Greenwich and Whitehall (Williams 1971, 122; Privy Papers and Expenses of Henry VIII).” [p140]

I’m gratified that at no other point in the book, do Gardiner and Allen go to such lengths to prove something which they say probably isn’t from the ship could have been if it really wanted to be.

References and Notes

Just in case you want to follow this further…

Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose – The Archaeology of the Mary Rose Volume 4,edited by Gardiner and Allen, The Mary Rose Trust Ltd, Portsmouth, 2005. ISBN 0-9544029-4-4

The Southampton Archaeological Museum is on line, the domino entry is at http://sccwww1.southampton.gov.uk/archaeology/view.asp?acc_num=A.2000.78.161

Henig, M. 1976. “The small finds”. I G. Lambrick & H Woods, Excavations on the second site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford, Oxeniensia 41, 213-22.

Faiclough, G.J. 1979. St Andrews Street 1976. Plymouth: Plymouth Museum Archaeological Series 2

Platt, C. 1975. Excavations in Medieval Southampton. Volume 2: The Finds, pp.274, fig. 249, cat.no.1950

Williams, N. 1971. Henry VIII and his Court. New York: Macmillan

Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. (On line at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/spe/index.htm)

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