After a long, hard day of pillaging, nothing helped the Vikings of yore unwind more than kicking back with a good old-fashioned board game. Especially popular was Hnefatafl (pronounced “neffa-taffle”), a strategy game that pitted a king and his defenders against two dozen attackers. Though much about Hnefatafl remains mysterious, the pastime was clearly precious. Wherever the Scandinavian raiders went, so too did their playing pieces.
Now, researchers conducting excavations on the English island of Lindisfarne may have uncovered one of these treasures: a tiny glass gaming piece, stained in swirls of blue and white and capped by a delicate crown of pearly beads, that may have waged war atop a checkered Hnefatafl board more than a thousand years ago. The artifact represents a rare glimpse into the turbulent past of Lindisfarne, the site of an ancient wooden monastery targeted by a massive Viking raid in Britain in 793 A.D.—the first of many plundering expeditions that would reshape the region’s history.
Discovered last summer by a team of researchers from the archaeological enterprise DigVentures, the gaming piece appears to date back to the eighth or ninth century, placing it squarely in the vicinity of the Vikings’ fateful arrival, David Petts, an archaeologist at Durham University, tells the Guardian’s Esther Addley.
Though apparently Norse in nature, the gaming piece’s true origins remain mysterious; it may have been ferried ashore by the Viking raiders themselves. As Daniel Crown reported for Atlas Obscura in 2018, Hnefatafl pieces were significant for more than their entertainment value: The gaming trinkets frequently made their way into boat burials, perhaps as “a means of assisting the transformation of the deceased into the afterlife or ancestral state.” Some evidence exists that Vikings believed Hnefatafl played a substantial role in the afterlife and hoped the inclusion of gaming pieces in burials would leave the dead prepared to play the hybrid war and chase game.
Though that might seem frivolous at first pass, Hnefatafl—which, at its heart, was probably a scaled-down simulation of a real-life raid—represented a serious cultural mainstay for the Norse. Linked inextricably to the Vikings’ warring ideology, gaming pieces could demarcate their owner’s status, explained historian Helène Whittaker to Atlas Obscura.
But the gaming piece can’t definitively be placed under Viking ownership just yet. It may have instead belonged to wealthy monks living in Lindisfarne’s monastery before the 793 invasion, underscoring the pervasiveness of Norse culture in the region. If that’s the case, Petts tells the Guardian, archaeologists may be a little closer to understanding the social and cultural dynamics that once bustled within Lindisfarne’s long-gone monastery.
Either way, the gaming piece is a rare and exciting find, writes David Nikel for Forbes. Though similar discoveries have been made in Ireland, Germany and Sweden, Hnefatafl artifacts are far scarcer in Britain.
According to Smithsonian magazine, Hnefatafl deviated from standard two-player games in its use of highly unequal sides. To play, a king and his defenders battled a group of taflmen, or attackers, that outnumbered them by roughly two-to-one. As the king’s men attempted to herd him to safety in one of the four burgs, or refuges, located in the corners of the grid-like game board, taflmen worked to thwart the escape. To end the game, the king had to either reach sanctuary or yield to captivity.
For DigVentures managing director Lisa Westcott Wilkins, the discovery of the piece—a crucial slice of Viking history—evoked a visceral reaction. As she tells the Guardian, “My heart was pounding, the little hairs on my arms were standing up. … It’s just so beautiful and so evocative of that time period, I couldn’t help myself.”