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 nearly 200 games of non- and crosses carved centuries ago in some of its most emblematic buildings and spaces.
“They are hidden in ordinary view,” Luis Leclere said Collective A Rula. “We’ve never heard of anything like the concentration of games we have here.”
His association began mapping the location of the games in 2015 after images of sets of rough-hewn Xs and Os in the atrium of a local monastery began circulating on social media. Residents soon began seeing versions of the rudimentary nine-hole pattern across the city center, carved into the granite stones that line plazas, fountains and building facades.
While some of the games are believed to date back to the end of the 16th century – when the foundation for what was to become the modern city was laid – most of the marks are believed to have been made between 300 and 400 years ago.
Their presence probably reflects the deep inequality in the city at the time, Leclere said. Clusters of the games have been found near the city’s main religious buildings, suggesting they were played by people who wanted to kill time while standing in line to receive alms.
Leclere pointed to the games found near the convent 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 roughly carved patterns had probably been made using quartz stone or some sort of metal tool.
Other carvings adorn the city’s main squares, suggesting they were made during festivals and public events. A game was found carved in the bell tower of the city’s cathedral on what may have been a way to pass the time between ringing the bells.
Leclere contrasted the games – almost all versions of tic-tac-toe – with the more intricate carved games found in some monasteries and in the closed atriums of churches. “These are always etched into public spaces that were accessible to ordinary citizens,” Leclere said.
What emerges is a rarely seen side of the city’s history, said art historian Miguel Angel Cajigal.
“The survival of these games is very interesting as it provides a view, albeit blurred, of the lives of the most humble strata of society,” he said. the newspaper The Newspaper. “These are people who are hardly mentioned throughout history.”
Since Lecleres’ collective began documenting the city’s games, they’ve 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 have never been able to find anything that confirms this,” he said.
In none of the other cities, however, have there been reports of a similar amount of gambling as in Santiago de Compostela, Leclere added. Some of this may be due to building materials, as carvings made in the stones that lie along Santiago city center are less likely to deteriorate compared to brick or wood.
He described the games’ long-overlooked status as a double-edged sword – allowing them to quietly endure for centuries, but also paved the way for them to disappear with little awareness of what was about to be lost.
“We’ve seen trash cans placed over them or seen them cemented,” he said. At other times, renovations carried out in the city center have led to stones being replaced. “We are approaching a rather fragile situation in the sense that they continue to disappear.”
So far, the collective has had little response as they pressure officials to do more to protect the city’s unique collection of games. “It’s complicated,” Leclere said. “There is always the idea that if they have managed to persevere until now, then why should we act?”
In an attempt to increase the pressure, they have sought to increase awareness of the find by arranging tours for both locals and tourists as well as school groups. “We will continue to fight because we see this as a hereditary problem,” Leclere said. “This is a fight that is very ongoing.”