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Beautiful Viking Game Piece Found at Site of their Earliest Known Raid

Ian Harvey
A Viking and his boardgame

What is thought to be a Viking board game piece has been discovered on the island of Lindisfarne, the site of the first known Viking raid on the British Isles. Some board games go back decades, while others date far further back than that. Chess, for example — called the Game of Kings —  dates back 1,500 years to India, and from there its popularity swept across Asia and Europe.

Apparently the Vikings loved a good game, too, according to a new piece of evidence found in Britain — a Nordic game piece that is believed to have traveled on a Viking ship to the British Island of Lindisfarne, famous for being the earliest known location of a Viking raid in 793 AD. It may have also been owned by the monks who lived on Lindisfarne, but the piece was Scandinavian in origin, which would show evidence of either cultural sharing or cultural conquest.

Vikings

The Landing of the Vikings
by Arthur C. Michael (1919)

Either way, experts say, it is indicative of the profound influence of Nordic culture, which ultimately overran the culture that existed there previously. Researchers say the piece, which is made of glass and has swirls of blue and white within it and a small crown perched on top, was part of a game called “Hnefatafl,” a Viking game of strategy not unlike chess. It dates back to the 8th or 9th century, experts have confirmed.

Viking board game

The glass piece unearthed from the English island of Lindisfarne that experts believe was once a Viking board game piece (Jeff Veitch)

It was found in a trench by excavators who are part of a team known as DigVentures, which consists of archaeologists and volunteers who receive funding from online money raising efforts. The Viking piece was found by a visitor to the island, not one of the archaeologists or even one of the regular volunteers.

Lindisfarne priory ruins

Ruins of Lindisfarne priory. Photo © Copyright Nick Mutton CC by 2.0

The island once housed a monastery but until recently no trace of it had been found. But researchers there discovered a cemetery, and one building so far during their excavation.  David Petts, an archaeologist and senior lecturer at Durham University in northern England, told the Guardian that the piece reveals a great deal about the life and habits of the monks, and others,  who once lived on Lindisfarne. The piece, although tiny, like the size of a sewing thimble, is hugely reflective of the lives on the island, and they weren’t the rough, short lives we sometimes imagine.

Lindisfarne ruins

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. © Copyright James Denham CC by 2.0

“We often tend to think of early medieval Christianity, especially on islands, as terribly austere,” Petts explained in an interview, “that they were all living a brutal, hard life.” Clearly the glass game piece proves there was more to life than chores and church, Petts said. “The sheer quality of this piece isn’t (from) any old gaming set. Someone on the island was living an elite lifestyle,” he theorized, because they had time to relax and play games.

Lisa Westcott is the managing director of DigVentures.  Although she tries to remain calm and detached when the group happens upon a rare artifact, she told the Guardian that, in this case, that was impossible for her.

“My heart was pounding,” she acknowledged, “the little hairs on my arms were standing up. As a scientist, you have to train yourself out of having an emotional response to things like this. It’s a piece of evidence, bottom line.”

But the small, perfectly preserved glass Viking board game piece sparked something in her outside her usual professional detachment. “…Honestly, it’s just so beautiful and so evocative of that time period, I couldn’t help myself.” She experienced pure joy, she said. Petts concurred, saying, “it’s a particularly valuable artifact,” a small piece of history that was embedded in the dirt that tells a profound story about life in medieval times.

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A story that we count on archaeologists and other experts to tell us, a story that reveals much about who we were, and even, perhaps, who we are today.