Game of stones: calls to protect Spanish city’s centuries-old noughts and crosses

Local historians seek to preserve part of Santiago de Compostela’s heritage after residents find nine-hole patterns across city

A local historical association in Santiago de Compostela has called for the protection of a lesser-known facet of the Spanish city’s past: the almost 200 games of noughts and crosses carved centuries ago into some of its most emblematic buildings and spaces.

“They’re hidden in plain sight,” said Luis Leclere of Colectivo A Rula. “We’ve never heard of anything like the concentration of games we have here.”

His association began mapping out the location of the games in 2015, after photos of sets of roughly hewn Xs and Os in the atrium of a local convent began circulating on social media. Residents soon began spotting versions of the rudimentary nine-hole pattern across the city centre, cut into the granite stones that line plazas, fountains and building facades.

While some of the games are believed to date back to the late 16th century – when the foundations of what would become the modern city were laid – the bulk of the marks are thought to have been made between 300 and 400 years ago.

Their presence probably reflects the deep inequality in the city at the time, said Leclere. Clusters of the games have been found near the city’s main religious buildings, suggesting they were played by people looking to kill time as they waited in line to receive alms.

Games of noughts and crosses carved in stone in Santiago de Compostela
Most of the carvings are thought to have been made between 300 and 400 years ago. Photograph: Colectivo A Rula

Leclere pointed to the games found near the monastery of San Martiño Pinario as an example. “They run along the edges or along the walls; they continue up the stairs, but they never cut through the walkway,” he said, adding that the rough-hewn patterns were likely to have been made using quartz stones or some sort of metal tool.

Other carvings dot the city’s main plazas, suggesting they were made during festivals and public events. One game was found carved into the clock tower of the city’s cathedral in what may have been a way of passing the time between ringing the bells.

Leclere contrasted the games – nearly all of them versions of tic-tac-toe – with the more intricately carved games found in some cloisters and in the enclosed atriums of churches. “These ones are always etched into public spaces that were accessible to ordinary citizens,” said Leclere.

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What emerges is a rarely seen side of the city’s history, said the art historian Miguel Ángel Cajigal.

“The survival of these games is very interesting as it offers a view, though a blurry one, of life for the humblest layers of society,” he told the newspaper El Periódico. “These are people who are hardly mentioned throughout history.”

Since Leclere’s collective began documenting the city’s games, they have heard of similar games found in other cities in Spain and France, as well as Canterbury and Gloucester in England. “The first thing that came to mind was whether there was a link to pilgrims and the Way of St James but we’ve never been able to find anything to confirm this,” he said.

In none of the other cities, however, have there been reports of a similar quantity of games as in Santiago de Compostela, Leclere added. Some of this might be due to building materials, as carvings made in the stones that line Santiago’s city centre are less likely to deteriorate, as compared with brick or wood.

People look at games of noughts and crosses carved in stone in Santiago de Compostela
The association has sought to raise awareness of the find, organising tours for locals, tourists and school groups. Photograph: Colectivo A Rula

He described the games’ long-overlooked status as a double-edged sword – allowing them to quietly endure for centuries but also paving the way for them to disappear with little awareness of what was being lost.

“We’ve seen garbage cans placed over them or seen them cemented over,” he said. At other times, renovations carried out in the city centre have led to stones being replaced. “We’re nearing a rather fragile situation in the sense that they continue to disappear.”

So far the collective has had little response as they push officials to do more to protect the city’s unique collection of games. “It’s complicated,” Leclere said. “There’s always this idea that if they have managed to endure until now, then why do we need to act?”

In an effort to ramp up pressure, they have sought to raise awareness of the find, organising tours for locals and tourists alike as well as school groups. “We’re going to keep fighting because we see this as a heritage issue,” Leclere said. “This is a battle that is very much ongoing.”


Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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