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Ancient Roman Board Game Found in Norwegian Burial Mound

Researchers unearthed a four-sided dice and 18 circular tokens

The four sides of a dice, as well as the front and back sides of several other game pieces found in western Norway (University of Bergen)
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Archaeologists excavating a burial mound in western Norway have discovered a roughly 1,700-year-old Roman board game, reports state broadcast network NRK.

The find dates to around 300 A.D., placing it squarely in the Roman Iron Age, which spanned 1 to 400 A.D. According to a statement from the University Museum of Bergen, the trove includes an elongated dice and 18 game chips. Researchers say the discovery will help establish the extent of cultural exchange between Rome and Scandinavia during the period, as well as the societal significance of gaming at the time.

A four-sided playing piece with zero to five circles engraved on each of its faces, the dice is “very rare,” archaeologist Morten Ramstad tells NRK. Fewer than 15 such dice have been found in Norway to date.

Per the statement, the board game may have been inspired by a popular Roman pastime: Ludus latrunculorum, or the “Game of Mercenaries.” Similar to chess or backgammon, the two-player showdown preceded the popular Viking Age game Hnefatafl, or the “King's Table.”

To play Hnefatafl, a king and his defenders battled taflmen, or attackers, that outnumbered them by roughly two-to-one, wrote Meilan Solly for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year. As the king’s men tried to guide him to safety in one of the board’s four corners, taflmen worked to thwart the escape. To end the game, the king either reached sanctuary or yielded to captivity.

Ytre Fosse
The Ytre Fosse site where the burial mound was found (University of Bergen)

The Norwegian burial mound that produced the newly revealed game pieces also contained bone fragments, pottery jars, a bronze needle and shards of glass, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science. All of the items were blackened with soot from what the archaeologists suggest was a funeral pyre befitting a high-ranking member of society.

“These are status objects that testify to contact with the Roman Empire,” where such games were popular, Ramstad tells NRK. “People who played like this were local aristocracy or upper class. The game showed that you had the time, the profits and the ability to think strategically.”

Researchers found the game pieces at the Ytre Fosse site in western Norway. Ytre Fosse overlooks the Alverstraumen strait, which was once part of an important trade route known as the Nordvegen, or “northern way,” reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. This sea route, which connected northern Norway to southern Scandinavia and Europe, later lent Norway its name.

Ramstad tells NRK that anyone who controlled a section of the Alverstraumen could enrich themselves by demanding that those who passed through pay taxes in the form of money or imported goods. Burying elite individuals along the strait was a “political choice” demonstrating power and control, the archaeologist explains to Live Science. Similarly large graves have been found along the strait, according to the statement, and such a scenario would provide a plausible explanation for how the Roman game made its way into an ancient Norwegian burial.

The find connects Norway with the broader network of communication and trade throughout Scandinavia, archaeologist Louise Bjerre tells NRK. At the same time, the pieces begin to paint a portrait of Norwegians’ everyday life during the early Roman Iron Age.

Speaking with NRK, Ramstad says the millennia-old game “tells us that the people then were not very different from us [now].”

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