When the University Museum of Bergen excavated the remains of an Early Iron Age grave cairn at Ytre Fosse in Western Norway, they made some pretty interesting discoveries which included an ancient board game that dates back 1,700 years.
One of the graves was a cremation patch that held three ceramic pots, burnt glass, and a bronze pin. Additionally, they discovered an extremely rare elongated dice from the Roman Iron Age (AD 1-400) along with 18 double-sided gaming pieces (13 whole and 5 broken game chip pieces). The oddly elongated die contains dots representing numbers that have values of zero, three, four, and six.
Morten Ramstad, who is a section manager at the antiquities section of the University Museum in Bergen, said in an interview with national broadcaster NRK, “This is wonderfully exciting. Such discoveries in Norway or Scandinavia have been very rare. The special thing here is that we have found almost the whole set and not least the die.” In fact, it is so rare that prior this newest discovery, less than 15 of these types of game pieces have been found in Norway.
Louise Bjerre, who is an archaeologist at the University Museum, explained this further, “This find connects Norway to a larger network of communication and trade in Scandinavia. At the same time, the findings can help us understand the beginnings of the Iron Age in Norway.”
Even though there were several other graves at the location, the ancient game pieces were what stood out in that specific burial site. The game pieces and the other artifacts were found beside the remains of a possible person of power, such as a nobleman. This man was believed to have been quite wealthy and perhaps even controlled the Alverstraumen strait where many items were delivered and transported by ferries.
“If you controlled these places where people were passing by, you could secure great fortunes through taxes and customs,” Ramstad explained. In reference to the game pieces, he went on to say, “These are status objects that testify to contact with the Roman Empire, where people amused themselves with board games. People who played games like this were local aristocracy or from the upper class. The game indicated that you had the time, the profits and the ability to think strategically.”
Board games that were played from the late Roman Empire required a lot of strategic thinking (like today’s chess or backgammon). “Finding a game that is almost two thousand years old is incredibly fascinating. It tells us that the people then were not that different from us,” Ramstad noted.
The ancient game was believed to have been created after the Roman game Ludus latrunculorum. It was then thought to have been used as the inspiration for the famous Viking age game of Hnefatafl.
The items recovered at the grave site are now being conserved in a lab and will hopefully be displayed for the public to view in the future. Pictures of the ancient game as well as the excavation site can be seen here.