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Air traffic controllers: The Assyrian fix for the late-night blues

April 20, 2011 |  6:05 am

Air Traffic Controller What does the Royal Game of Ur have to do with America's air traffic controllers? More than you might think.

Actually, first you're probably asking:  What the heck is the Royal Game of Ur?  So here's a history lesson, just in case you were asleep the day your college professor covered Ur: 

The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of Twenty Squares, was widely played in the ancient world. It's basically a board game with dice and tokens. A famous example is found in the British Museum. As the museum's website explains:

This game board is one of several with a similar layout found by Leonard Woolley in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The wood had decayed but the inlay of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli survived in position so that the original shape could be restored. The board has twenty squares made of shell:  Five squares each have flower rosettes, 'eyes', and circled dots. The remaining five squares have various designs of five dots. According to references in ancient documents, two players competed to race their pieces from one end of the board to another. Pieces were allowed on to the board at the beginning only with specific throws of the dice. We also know that rosette spaces were lucky.

Examples of this 'Game of Twenty Squares' date from about 3000 BC to the first millennium AD and are found widely from the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to India.

What the British Museum also has (among so many treasures it makes you tired just thinking of them) are the "colossal winged bulls from the Palace of Sargon II."

These "human-headed winged bulls [are] magical figures which once guarded an entrance to the citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BC)."

Trust me, they're amazing.  And trust me, I'm getting to the air traffic controllers.

A close examination of the museum's prize bulls revealed this:

Between the legs of the winged bull there is a long cuneiform inscription listing Sargon's titles, ancestry and achievements. Roughly scratched on the plinth is a grid for the 'Game of Twenty Squares', a descendant of the Royal Game of Ur. This may have been scratched in by palace guards.

Amazing. Just think:  Thousands of years ago, a couple of guys guarding Sargon II's palace scratched a game board into one of his statues.   Probably they were bored.  Probably they were just working stiffs trying to do a job. Maybe it was late at night, and they needed a way to stay awake.

And that's where today's sleeping air traffic controllers come in.  Thousands of years have gone by, yet no one today thought that maybe, if you want someone to be up all night, it would be better to give them some companionship? 

Sargon II could afford more than one guard at his palace gates.  There's a game board on a statue that proves it.  And all they had to do was keep a few gate-crashers at bay.

We have jet planes full of people hurtling toward airports, but someone thinks one guy is plenty to keep us safe?

On Sunday, the FAA announced changes to keep controllers alert on the job.   

Air traffic controllers will be required to take at least nine hours off between shifts — one more hour than the current practice — and supervisors will work more overnight hours under new rules announced Sunday.

Which is good.  But why not take a page from Sargon II and make sure that there is more than one controller in a tower? 

Heck, we could even let them play the Royal Game of Ur.  The British Museum has an online version.

Who knows, it might even be better than the movie that one controller was caught watching  instead of doing his job.   

 -- Paul Whitefield

Photo: An air traffic controller in a terminal radar approach control room in Peachtree City, Ga. Credit: David Goldman / Associated Press / April 18, 2011

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