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Sports, 4,000 years ago

Here’s the Mesopotamian equivalent of a boxing poster

A plaque from ancient Mesopotamia showing two boxers fighting Print Collector/Getty Images

This clay plaque comes from Larsa Iraq, and was manufactured around 4,000 years ago. As far as I know it’s the oldest representation of sports in human history, beating similar scenes painted in Egyptian tombs by a couple hundred years. The athletes are on the left, participating in an aesthetically uncanny but recognisable boxing match (the two on the right are musicians).

I said ‘manufactured’ just now, and did so deliberately — these sorts of plaques were mass-produced, cast from molds and hung up in houses, alongside other plaques containing, for instance, hunting scenes and nudes. Our boxers, in other words, adorn the equivalent of a modern-day poster.

Were the people who hung these clay tablets on the walls fans? Would they even have understood the question? Frankly, I have no idea how the Mesopotamian concept of sports would have meshed with our own. But what matters is that enough people would have watched and enjoyed these contests to make them culturally relevant.

Charting the course of ideas through human history can be an incredibly rewarding exercise. Take, for instance, the development of mathematics. Modernity is filled with fossils from ancient Babylonian base-60 mathematics, which survive in time and angle, which are closely related when you’re as concerned with astronomy as the Babylonians were. That concern gave us sixty minutes to an hour and 360 degrees in a circle, facts so foundational to daily life that their provenance is rarely questioned.

That’s less true with sports, which are an expression of whatever culture produces them rather than a field in which human endeavor can produce progress per se. In his sweeping history of Europe, historian Norman Davies suggests that sports as we know it have their genesis with the changes in attitudes towards leisure in the mid-19th century (it’s interesting to draw parallels with the explosion of novel-writing at the same time). Certainly, the modern version of sports fandom would be thoroughly perplexed by what counted for ‘sports’ for 17th century Spain royalty, for instance:

Diego Velázquez’s “Philip IV hunting Wild Boar (La Tela Real)”

One suspects, however, that 21st-century fandom would have an easier time assimilating to Constantinople’s Hippodrome, which, if anything, had a more prominent part of cultural life than modern sports do. But the rabid, mass polarization caused by chariot racing is unusual. Sports as mass entertainment, rather than an elite leisure activity (e.g. hunting) or with ritual overtones (e.g. ōllamaliztli) are fairly rare, historically. Sports have always existed, but in ways that aren’t easily mappable onto our current experience.

That said, just because the cultural details aren’t readily transferrable doesn’t mean that the whole sporting experience would be alien to us. Someone living 4,000 years ago could have looked at that boxer plaque on the wall and remember the key moments in the matches they witnessed. They’d probably have talked about it with their friends. There might have been hand gestures, even.

One of the most important parts of history is realizing that it was mostly participated in by normal people, doing normal things. While I’m sure that in many ways, Mesopotamian boxing would have been utterly alien to a modern viewer, there’d still be a ludicrous amount in common between the owners of these plaques and sports fans today.

Recently I was at the British Museum, where the Larsa plaque is held. (Where else would it be?! ) I went looking for it, hoping for a little human connection with whoever’s house it might have adorned. Either it’s not on regular display or the Covid reshuffle is hiding it for now, but I couldn’t find it. There is, nevertheless, something magical in the notion that amidst the (much later) winged bulls of Nineveh and the scenes of terrible conquest that would have beautified the walls of the kings, two dudes are punching each other in the face for our amusement.

May they punch forever.