Lindisfarne Vikings: ancient board-game piece from period of first Scandanavian raids discovered
A glass board game piece has been found on Lindisfarne, dating back to the very earliest Viking raids on the island, 1,200 years ago.
The piece, which is about the size of a small pebble, is believed to be part of a set used in the Viking strategy game known as ‘Hnefatafl’.
Archaeologists say the exquisite worked glass object is a rare piece of physical evidence linking Viking raiders with one of their most famous targets.
Explore a 3D digital model of the piece here.
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Lindisfarne is world famous as an ancient Christian monastic site, as well as for the unique illuminated gospels created there in the late seventh century.
How was it found?
The piece was discovered in a trench on the island in summer 2019, by the mother of a team member of DigVentures who was visiting for her birthday. DigVentures, a crowdfunded project, is staffed entirely by volunteers and members of the public.
The group’s managing director, Lisa Westcott Wilkins said the find proves the viability of volunteer digs.
“The big argument is that you can’t do real archaeology with members of the public. You can, as long as it is properly supervised,” she said.
How did the piece get to Lindisfarne?
The board game piece could have been brought to the island by a wealthy Scandanavian as part of a military raid, according to experts at Durham University.
But there is also a chance that the Anglo-Saxon monk, or wealthy Christian pilgrims, might have played the game themselves - highlighting the cultural influence that Scandanavian invaders had on Lindisfarne’s inhabitants.
What can the discovery tell us?
The discovery might give an insight into the living standards of people on the island, according to David Petts, the project’s lead archaeologist, and a senior lecturer at Durham University.
“We often tend to think of early medieval Christianity, especially on islands, as terribly austere: that they were all living a brutal, hard life,” he said.
“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 sheer quality of this piece suggests this isn’t any old gaming set. Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle.”
What is Hnefatafl?
Hnefatafl was a popular board game across much of Scandanavia and Celtic Europe, and is mentioned in several Norse sagas.
The rules of Hnefatafl were not recorded, and only pieces and fragments of the wooden playing board have been discovered by archaeologists.
In the Middle Ages, the popularity of Chess supplanted Hnefatafl, and the formal rules were forgotten over time. Since then, several attempts have been made to resurrect the game by recreating rules based on what historians know of the board’s layout.