Medieval Game Pieces Unearthed Beneath a Castle in Germany

The “excellently preserved” chess knight, six-sided die and several other pieces are all about 1,000 years old

Chess piece
Researchers are particularly excited about the newly discovered chess piece, which is about an inch and a half tall. University of Tübingen / Victor Brigola

Researchers have discovered a small trove of medieval game pieces hidden in a German castle. The collection includes a chess knight—which may have been used by real knights—alongside a six-sided die and four pieces shaped like flowers.

The cache was uncovered during excavations of a forgotten castle in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, according to an announcement from the regional council of Stuttgart, the state’s capital. The pieces date to between the 11th and 12th centuries.

“They were lying under the debris of a wall, where they were lost or hidden in the Middle Ages,” says Michael Kienzle, an archaeologist at Germany’s University of Tübingen, in a statement from the university. Protected from the elements, the game pieces were found in “exceptional” condition.

Researchers carefully removed the artifacts and analyzed them in the lab. “Under the microscope, a typical sheen from holding and moving the pieces can be seen,” says Flavia Venditti, another archaeologist at the university, in the statement.

Each game piece is made of carved antlers, and residues found in the lab indicate that some of them may have once been painted red. According to the university, the pattern of wear on the chess piece suggests that players moved the knight just as today’s players do: by lifting it instead of sliding it, “pointing to an astonishing continuity in the rules of the game.”

The 1,000-year-old chess piece stands just over an inch and a half tall. Marked with a pair of eyes and a mane, its “elaborate design is typical of particularly high-quality chess pieces of this period,” writes the university.

The small cache of game pieces was found in a largely unknown German castle. University of Tübingen / Victor Brigola

At the time the knight was carved, the game of chess was still relatively new to Europe. Chess evolved from a game called Chaturanga, which was first recorded in ancient India around the sixth century. This early version of the game “pitted four players, each assuming the role of an imperial military arm, against each other,” as Smithsonian magazine’s Meilan Solly wrote in 2020, adding that some of the rules may sound familiar: “Infantry, for instance, marched forward and captured diagonally like pawns, while cavalry traveled in L-shapes like knights.”

Eventually, chess spread into Europe by way of the Muslim world. By the end of the 12th century, the game had become a mainstay across the continent.

“In the Middle Ages, chess was one of the seven skills that a good knight should master,” says Jonathan Scheschkewitz, an official with Baden-Württemberg’s State Office for the Preservation of Monuments, in the statement. “It is therefore not surprising that known finds mostly come from castles.” Even so, the researchers note that finding a well-preserved chess piece from before the 1200s in central Europe is quite rare.

Several other historic chess artifacts have made headlines in recent years. In 2019, a 12th-century chess piece purchased for a few dollars sold for over $900,000 at auction. Around the same time, researchers announced that a rook unearthed in Jordan dating to between 680 and 749 may be the oldest known chess piece in the world.

The newly discovered game pieces are currently undergoing chemical analysis. As researchers continue their investigation, they hope to glean new insights into medieval nobles’ gaming habits and the history of chess in Europe. In the meantime, researchers have created 3D models of the chess piece, the die and one of the flower-shaped tokens.

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