Les Osselets (Knucklebones)

 “Les Osselets” (The Game of Knucklebones)
by Jean-Baptise-Someon Chardin, 1734

A little bit of art for your weekend. This painting is called “Les Osselets,” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and currently hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art. The titles translates as “The Ossicles,” which really doesn’t help us much, because in English “ossicles” are the little bones in your ear. In French, according to my little dictionary, an ossicle is supposedly a knucklebone, which gets us closer to the meaning of this painting.

The young woman is tossing a ball in the air while four knucklebones lie on the table. Knucklebones were a common game element dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, where they may have been a precursor to dice. The bones are long and wide on two sides, long and narrow on two sides, and short and narrow on two sides. They are sanded down to allow them to land on different edges when thrown, and various games have different names and scores for each landing configuration. Also: they’re not actually knucklbones: they’re the ankle bones from a sheep.
The game usually is played as it is here: as an early version of jacks, with the bones collected before the ball lands. The other way to play was to toss the bones in the air and try to catch them on the back of the hand. Wiki actually has a pretty good summary of different ways to score in some versions, but some of their historical data is off. (Plato mentions dice and checkers in the Phaedrus, not knucklebones.)