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 crabs carved centuries ago into some of its buildings and spaces the most emblematic.
“They’re hidden in plain sight,” said Luis Leclere of 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 photos of roughly carved sets of X’s and O’s in the atrium of a local convent began circulating on social media. Residents quickly began spotting versions of the rudimentary nine-hole pattern in the city center, carved into the granite stones that line plazas, fountains and building facades.
While some of the games are thought to date back to the late 16th century – when the foundations of what would become the modern city were laid – most of the marks are thought to have been made between 300 and 400 years ago.
Their presence likely reflects the city’s deep inequality at the time, Leclere said. Gambling groups have been found near major religious buildings in the city, suggesting they were played by people seeking to kill time as they lined up to receive alms.
Leclere cited as an example the games found near the monastery of San Martiño Pinario. “They run along the edges or along the walls; they keep going up the stairs, but they never cut the walkway,” he said, adding that the roughly hewn patterns were probably made using quartz stones or some sort of metal tool. metal.
Other sculptures dot the main squares of the city, suggesting that they were made during festivals and public events. A game was found carved into the clock tower of the town’s cathedral in what may have been a way to pass the time between the ringing of bells.
Leclere contrasted the games—almost all versions of tic-tac-toe—with the more intricately carved games found in some cloisters and in the enclosed atriums of churches. “These are still etched in public spaces accessible to ordinary citizens,” Leclere said.
What emerges is a rarely seen aspect of the city’s history, said art historian Miguel Ángel Cajigal.
“The survival of these games is very interesting because it offers a vision, albeit a blur, of life for the lower strata of society,” he told the newspaper El Periodico. “These are people who are barely mentioned throughout history.”
Since Leclere’s collective began documenting games in the city, 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 connection with pilgrims and the Way of St. James, but we could never find anything to confirm it” , did he declare.
In none of the other cities, however, have there been reports of a similar amount of gambling as in Santiago de Compostela, Leclere added. This could partly be due to the building materials, as the carvings made in the stones that line downtown Santiago are less likely to deteriorate than brick or wood.
He described the games’ long-neglected status as a double-edged sword – allowing them to go on quietly for centuries, but also paving the way for them to disappear with little awareness of what was lost.
“We saw trash cans placed on top of them or cemented them on,” he said. At other times, renovations carried out in the city center have led to the replacement of stones. “We are approaching a rather fragile situation in the sense that they continue to disappear.”
So far, the collective has had little response as it pushes officials to do more to protect the city’s unique collection of games. “It’s complicated,” said Leclere. “There’s always this idea that if they’ve been able to last this far, then why do we need to act?”
In order to build up the pressure, they have sought to raise awareness of the discovery, organizing tours for locals and tourists as well as school groups. “We will continue to fight because we see this as a heritage issue,” Leclere said. “It’s a battle that is very much on-going.”