Feb 12, 2020 I Sequoyah Kennedy

1,200-Year-Old Board Game Piece Discovered on Site of First Viking Raid in UK

When you think of what a Viking raider might have done for fun, the last thing you'd probably say is "board games."  It's hard to imagine a group of Vikings, fresh from a good day of pillaging, sitting around playing Settlers of Catan. At least without someone actually getting murdered. Yet, board games have been ingrained in many different cultures throughout history and Vikings are no exception. Now archaeologists say they've discovered a roughly 1,200-years-old rare glass board game piece on the UK island of Lindisfarne, the site of the first major Viking raid on the British Isles.

The board game piece is a small piece of rounded blue and white glass in distinctive patterns, with a crown of five droplets of white glass. Archaeologists studying the piece say they believe it to be from a local variant of Viking game similar to chess called "hnefatafl"("king's table"). This is only the second hnefatafl piece ever discovered in the British Isles.

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The glass hnefatafl piece. (Credit: Durham University and DigVentures)

The island of Lindisfarne was the site of an 8th-century monastery that created the stunning "illuminated gospels," an ornate book of the first English language translation of the gospels. It was also the site of the first major Viking raid in the British Isles in AD 793, kicking off hundreds of years of pillaging and conflict.

The hnefatafl piece was discovered over the summer in a trench dug between the 8th and 9th centuries, placing it in the period of the notorious Viking raid.

Archaeologists don't necessarily believe that this Viking board game piece was dropped in the mud by Viking raiders in between attempts to storm the monastery, however. They say that this game piece may have been from a variant of hnefatafl that was played on Lindisfarne before Vikings ever set foot on the island. Perhaps the hostilities were caused by arguments over the rules of the game. It wouldn't be completely unheard of.

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To be fair, I've played a lot of board games with people who look eerily similar.

Lead archaeologist David Petts says that, contrary to the assumptions of medieval life, Lindisfarne would have been a busy, bustling place full of merchants, diplomats, and visiting royalty. According to Petts, the quality of the piece suggests it belonged to someone important. He says:

“We often tend to think of early medieval Christianity, especially on islands, as terribly austere: that they were all living a brutal, hard life.

The sheer quality of this piece suggests this isn’t any old gaming set. Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle.”

As to the importance of this find, Petts says:

“We are starting to get an insight into the actual lives of the people who were in the monastery, rather than just their cemeteries and their afterlives."

The piece was discovered by a partnership between Durham University and the primarily crowdfunded and volunteer-staffed group Dig Ventures. Dig Ventures managing director, Lisa Westcott Wilkins, says when the piece was discovered she became emotional and could hardly contain her excitement. She says:

My heart was pounding, the little hairs on my arms were standing up. As a scientist, you have to train yourself out of having an emotional response to things like this. It’s a piece of evidence, bottom line.

But honestly, it’s just so beautiful and so evocative of that time period, I couldn’t help myself.”

It's understandable, of course. Board games rule. So next time you're sitting around playing board games with your nerd friends, remember you're not so different from a group of Viking warriors. Or the monks about to be seriously, seriously raided.

Sequoyah Kennedy

Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.

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