Hnefatafl

the Game of the Vikings

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Archaeological Finds

This page contains a select catalogue of archaeological finds that are, or have in the past been, attributed to the game of hnefatafl.

The Vimose Board Fragment

Vimose board fragment

Vimose board fragment

In about AD400 this fragment of a gaming board was thrown into a bog in Vimose, Denmark, as part of a war booty offering to the gods. It most likely came from Romanised Germans, and may not be a tafl board at all, but perhaps one for the Roman game ludus latrunculorum, "the game of little soldiers".

The Golden Horns of Gallehus

Segment from one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus

Segment from one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus

In about AD500 a pair of golden drinking horns was made by Hlewagastir, son of Holte, for some unknown purpose. They were found in Gallehus, near the German border in Denmark. They were richly decorated, and among the engraved scenes were these two men playing a board game. It may be tafl, but at this early date the evidence is lacking.

Glass Pieces from Gunnarshaug

Glass pieces from Gunnarshaug

Glass pieces from Gunnarshaug

From a photograph by Marit Synnøve Vea

An eighth century set of glass gaming pieces from Gunnarshaug (also known as Storhaug) in Norway consists of one large piece, four medium-sized pieces and twelve small pieces. These numbers are not quite what we expect from a hnefatafl game, but do appear to be a single king piece, and a small force set against a large one. This shows the game was being played by the time the Vikings made their first raids abroad.

The Gokstad Gaming Board

Both sides of the gaming board from Gokstad

Both sides of the gaming board from Gokstad

This ninth-century board, a fragment of which was found in Gokstad in Norway, doesn't have any markings that identify it beyond doubt as tafl. But we do know it has the right size and shape, as there is a a nine men's morris board on the reverse to confirm that it is square. Its 13 rows of 13 squares tally with no other known game of this era.

The Ballinderry Board

Line drawing of the Ballinderry board.

Line drawing of the Ballinderry board.

This board found in Ballinderry in Ireland in 1932 is unmistakeably tafl. The giveaway feature, along with the odd number of cells on the square board, is the marked central cell. The board was made in Dublin in around the tenth century. An onion-shaped piece found in Dublin gives some idea of what the pieces would have looked like.

Baldursheimur: Set of Walrus Ivory Pieces

The king from the Baldursheimur set

The king from the Baldursheimur set

A set of twenty-four walrus ivory pieces and a whalebone king. The king is 3.9 cm (about 1.5") high, and is carved into the figure of a seated man holding a long beard. Found in Baldursheimur, Iceland, in 1860, the pieces date from the 10th century. They are now at the Islands Nationalmuseum, in Reykjavik.

An oddity about this set is that twelve of the pieces have red pigment, giving two sides of equal numbers. This may be because the set is incomplete, or because it was used for a game of equal forces (instead of, or as well as, hnefatafl).

Balnakeil: Set of Antler Pieces

A bag of fourteen gaming pieces were found in 1991 in a boy's grave in Balnakeil, Scotland, dated to between A.D. 850 and 900. A fragment of wood was found near the pieces, which could be part of the gaming board, though the state of the fragment was too poor to be sure of this.

The pieces were conical and made of antler, and originally polished. They would have measured about 20mm high and 11mm at the base. They were clustered together in a compact form that suggests they were stored in a pouch, now rotted away. Each had a hole in the base for a bone or metal pin, for use with a pegged gaming board. The set is not considered complete, as more gaming pieces were found scattered on the surface near the burial, which had been exposed by a storm.

Basingstoke: Single Horse-tooth Piece

Murray describes a short, hollow cylinder, made from horses' teeth with the opposite ends closed by disks united with a silver pin, found in Basingstoke, England. The existence of this find has been called into question, however; pieces of horse tooth were not in this form but were high-domed, the grinding surface of the molar tooth forming the base of the piece.

Bawdsey: Single Jet Piece

An oblong piece of jet, found in 1969 at Bawdsey in England. The top is faceted, and each of the four vertical faces is carved with a pattern, as is the base. The piece dates from the middle of the tenth century, and is 4.7 cm (about 1.75") high

Birka 624: Board and Bone Pieces

Bone pieces from Bjorko grave 624.

Bone pieces from Bjorko grave 624.

A set of twenty-seven gaming pieces of lathe-turned bone, found with an iron mounted wooden gaming board in grave 624 in Bjorko, on the island of Birka in Sweden. The pieces are spherical with flat bases, and the bases contain the remains of iron pegs, used to insert the pieces into the holes of a peg-holed gaming board. The king is capped with a bronze mount to distinguish him from the other pieces. Six of the pieces are smaller in size than the rest. The king is 3 cm (1.25") high and the other pieces are 2 cm (0.75") high, the differences in size being accounted for by the diameter

Birka 886: Set of Bone Pieces

Twenty-five bone hemispherical pieces were found in Birka grave 886 in Sweden. One of the pieces is slightly flatter than the rest, and darker in colour. With the pieces there was also found the remains of an iron mounted wooden gaming board, like the one in grave 624.

Birka 710: Set of Glass Pieces

Found at Birka in Sweden was a set of eight glass gaming pieces, from grave 710. These are all black with a white spiral pattern; no king nor opposing force survives.

Birka 750: Set of Glass Pieces

Glass pieces from Birka grave 750.

Glass pieces from Birka grave 750.

Found at Birka, Sweden, in grave 750, this is a set of twenty-five ninth century spherical gaming pieces with flat bases, made of glass, accompanied by a glass king piece. The spherical pieces are 2.5 cm (1") to 2.7 cm (1.1") high, with eight of dark green glass and seventeen of light blue-green. The king is dark green, and is shaped with a conical body topped with a round head, the head being decorated with eyes, a nose and a crown.

Birka 523: Set of Glass Pieces

Pieces from Birka grave 523

Pieces from Birka grave 523

Copyright (C) Swedish History Museum 2010. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.5/se/)

A set of 20 glass pieces in grave 523 at Birka, Sweden features a damaged king, formed from a sphere mounted on a cone, the spherical head decorated with a face. The body of the king is decorated with a spiral pattern, as are 14 of the other pieces. The remaining five pieces are of dark plain glass.

Birka 644: Set of Glass Pieces

In grave 644 at Birka, Sweden there was a composite set of twenty glass pieces and three dice. The set is assumed to be composite due to the presence of two kings. Both are conical, one with a spherical head decorated with a face. Both kings are damaged, and both probably had spherical heads at one time. Most of of the pieces are decorated with spiral patterns.

Birka 917: Set of Bone Pieces

A set of nine button-shaped pieces was found in grave 917 in Birka, Sweden. Variations in size, shape and colour make it impossible to tell the make-up of this set.

Birka 581: Set of Bone Pieces

From grave 581 in Birka, Sweden were taken a set of twenty-eight hemispherical bone pieces and three dice. The bone pieces are of a variety of sizes, some of them being fragmentary. It is possible that some fragments belong to the same piece. Some of the pieces have a pointed top.

Birka 986: Set of Elk Horn Pieces

This is a set of sixteen pieces from the ninth century, found in grave 986 at Birka in Sweden, made of elk horn accompanied by a king. The king has a conical body topped with a round head, his body bearing vertical grooves. Six of the sixteen pieces also bear grooves on their upper conical section.

Birka 524: Set of Amber Pieces

Fifteen amber pieces were found in grave 524 at Birka in Sweden, dating from the ninth century. The king is larger than the others, and bears a pattern of crossed grooves. Of the other pieces, three are red and the other eleven are yellow.

Birsay: Single Bone Piece

A single piece of lathe-turned bone was found at the Brough of Birsay in Scotland, spherical with a flat base and a hole for a peg.

Birsay: Single Antler Piece

A conical piece of antler with a round terminal was found in the Church at the Brough of Birsay in Scotland.

Birsay: Whalebone Board

A fragment of a whalebone gaming board with peg holes was found in the Brough of Birsay in Scotland. What remains is three rows of four holes, with evidence of further rows and holes along the broken edges.

Buckquoy: Three Stone Boards

A flagstone gaming board was found in Buckquoy in Scotland, in 1976. The board is of the graffiti type, with a grid of seven lines by seven. The central intersection is marked with a circle, but the corners are unmarked. A sandstone graffiti gaming board of similar design was also found there.

Another flagstone board found at Buckquoy is lightly incised with the same grid pattern as the others, but other patterns are overlaid on the normal grid. I have identified two groups of patterns. One is a cross formed of two lines, each line bearing rows of circles, a circle around the intersection having a double outline. Another horizontal line bearing similar circles is incised above the horizontal line of the cross just mentioned. The circles look like representations of game pieces, but are not placed squarely on the intersections of the board.

Coppergate, York: Wooden Board

A fragment of a gaming board was found in 1976 in Coppergate, York, England. The board dates from the period AD 950-1025, and consists of three rows of sixteen squares, with evidence of a metal strip along its surviving edge. There is also evidence that a metal strip covered the sixteenth squares, making the playing area fifteen squares wide. Five of these planks would form a 15x15 board. The surviving corners are not marked.

Downpatrick: Stone Board

Diagram of the Downpatrick gaming board.

Diagram of the Downpatrick gaming board.

A stone graffiti board of 7x7 lines was found at the Cathedral in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. The central intersection of this board is marked with a circle, and the corners are marked with quadrants. The board is now at the Down County Museum. It dates between the ninth and the thirteenth century.

The board is double-sided. The reverse contains a grid of eight lines by eight, forming a pattern of 49 squares, with a cross marking the central square. A number of the lines on this side are incomplete, giving the impression that this was a failed attempt to create the board.

Drimore: Single Bone Piece

A piece made of bone, with a pointed top, was found at Drimore in Scotland.

Dublin: Two Walrus Ivory Pieces

In Dublin, Ireland, two pieces were found, one unfinished. Both are of walrus ivory, and date from the eleventh century. The finished piece is smooth, and is shaped like a slightly flattened onion, with rounded sides and a conical top, while the rough piece is formed of a cylinder topped by a cone. Both pieces are pierced underneath, perhaps for the insertion of a peg for use with a board like the one found at Ballinderry (see above), which is thought to have been made in Dublin. The pieces are now at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

Dun Chonallaich: Board

Diagram of the Dun Chonallaich board, with circles showing the pit markings.

Diagram of the Dun Chonallaich board, with circles showing the pit markings.

A gaming board was found at the fort at Dun Chonallaich, in Scotland. It is a simple grid of seven lines by seven, etched into stone, and it appears to survive complete. The central intersection and the four adjacent intersections are marked with a pit. In common with the other Scottish boards and in contrast to some of the Irish ones, the corners are not marked.

Eyrarland: Single Bronze Piece

A bronze king piece, carved as a seated man holding his long beard, was found in Eyrarland, Iceland, and dates from the eleventh century.

Faversham: Single Horse-tooth Piece

A piece was found in Faversham, made of a horse's tooth, similar to the one found in Basingstoke.

Garryduff: Stone Board

A stone graffiti board was found in Garryduff, Ireland. It is similar to the Downpatrick board, but lacks the corner markings.

Hedeby: Two Bone Pieces

A pair of lathe-turned gaming pieces with flat circular bases were found at Hedeby, Germany. They are pierced on the underside, from the lathe-bit.

Hedeby: Two Amber Pieces

Two playing pieces of amber were found at Hedeby, Germany, both with flat circular bases. One has a rounded top, while the other is cylindrical with a tapered top.

Howe: Stone Board

A graffiti stone board was found in excavations at Howe in Scotland.

Ile de Groix: Set of Antler and Walrus Ivory Pieces

Excavations at rare Viking burial on the Ile de Groix in France have revealed a set of twelve pieces, some made of antler and some made of the tusk of a marine mammal, possibly walrus ivory.

Jarlshof: Slate Board

Diagram of the restored Jarlshof board

Diagram of the restored Jarlshof board

At Jarlshof in Scotland there a slate plate was found in four pieces. The slate, which measures 12.7 cm (5") by 8.25 cm (3.25"), bears a pattern that looks like part of a gaming board. There is a pattern of squares, formed by nine vertical and seven horizontal lines. In five of the squares are diagonal crosses; the marked squares themselves form an orthogonal cross, each marked square separated from the next by a blank square between them. A large circle rings this arrangement of patterned squares, though the circle is cut off by one edge of the extant board. The reverse of the board bears a grid of 10x20 lines. A single conical, or pear-shaped, gaming piece was also found.

Knockanboy: Wooden Board

Reconstruction of the Knockanboy board

Reconstruction of the Knockanboy board

A fragment of a wooden board was found in 1837 at Knockanboy, in Derrykeighan in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. About two thirds of the board were preserved, including one handle and three corners, but not including the central space.

The board measured about seven inches square (175mm), not including the handle. The handle and the petal motifs at the corners were the only decorations on the board, the central hole not surviving. The artefact disappeared into a private collection and is now considered lost. Dating is difficult, but because of the style of the handle, the Knockanboy board is thought to be older than the Ballinderry board.

Lund: Single Walrus Ivory Piece

A single piece was found in 1936 at Lund in Sweden. Like a number of other pieces, this is in the form of a seated man holding his long beard, in this case carved from walrus ivory. The figure and the seat on which he is sitting are carved in detail.

Nes: Set(s) of Playing Pieces

Forty-seven pieces and three walrus ivory dice were found at Nes, in Norway. The presence of the dice has prompted suggestions that these were originally three more modest sets of pieces.

Ockelbo: Picture Stone

Board game on the Ockelbo picture stone

Board game on the Ockelbo picture stone

A picture stone at Ockelbo churchyard in Sweden shows a number of saga scenes, including one of two men playing a board game, reminiscent of the scene on the Golden Horn of Gallehus (item #25 above). In this case the game is more easily identified as hnefatafl, as the board has a marked central square and corner squares. Only the diagonal lines connecting these squares confuse the issue. The stone is a replica, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1904.

Oldenburg: Set of Pieces

A variety of materials makes up this apparently complete set found in Oldenburg, Germany. There are thirty-seven pieces in all, twenty-two of walrus ivory and fourteen of whalebone, accompanied by a bronze king.

Roholte: Single Amber Piece

Found at Roholte in Denmark, this piece is a half-length male figure shown holding his beard. The piece dates from the tenth or eleventh centuries.

Sanday: Soapstone Board Fragment

A piece of an old bowl was found on the island of Sanday, in Scotland, in 1998 by the Time Team archaeological television series. The fragment was marked with squares, suggesting the bowl, or part of it, had been used to play a board game: in the Viking context, probably hnefatafl.

Sandnaes: Two Ivory Pieces

These two pieces were found in 1984 at Sandnaes in Greenland. They are conical lathe-turned pieces of walrus ivory, dating from the eleventh century. Other gaming pieces have been found in the Scandinavian settlements across Greenland.

Scalloway: Set of Pieces

These pieces are mentioned by Mark Hall as examples of pre-Viking pieces in Scotland.

Scar: Set of Bone Pieces

In a burial at Scar on the island of Sanday, Scotland, a set of lathe-turned bone pieces was found, apparently buried in a bag which has since rotted away. The set consisted of one large piece topped with an iron pin, eight slightly smaller pieces and another thirteen smaller still. The pieces were spherical with flat bases, and each had a hole in the base, some with evidence of once having held an iron pin, which would have secured the pieces in the holes of a peg-holed gaming board.

Taplow: A Single Horse-tooth Piece

A piece was found at Taplow, England, similar to those at Basingstoke and Faversham, made of a horse's tooth.

Toftanes: Wooden Board Fragment

Half of a tenth century oak gaming board was found in Toftanes, in the Faroe Islands, fashioned from an old serving platter. The board is double sided, one side bearing an unidentified rectangular design and the other a board for hnefatafl. The board has seven rows of fourteen squares remaining. A square that would have been near the centre of the complete board is marked with an orthogonal cross. If the fourteenth column of squares is regarded as a mistake, then the cross-cut square would be in the centre of the board.

Trondheim: Wooden Board Fragment

A reconstruction of the gaming board from Trondheim

A reconstruction of the gaming board from Trondheim

About two thirds of a wooden gaming board was found during excavations at the public library in Trondheim, Norway. The board dates to the twelfth century, and is divided into rows of eleven squares, the complete edge measuring 25.6 cm (10"). Seven squares are marked with a diagonal cross, their overall arrangement being three arms of a cross, the arms each being separated from the central square by two empty squares in between.

Assuming the missing section of the board bore the fourth arm of the cross, and that the board was symmetrical, the total size would have been eleven squares by eleven. The reverse of the board bears marking for a game of tables (i.e. backgammon or some mediaeval Scandinavian equivalent). A bordering rim is fixed to the board with dowels.

Another fragment of a wooden board was found at Trondheim, badly burnt, as was a pear-shaped gaming piece of Walrus Ivory.

Underhoull: Board Fragment and Pieces

A fragment of a simple gaming board was found at Underhoull, Unst, Scotland. Counters were found with the gaming board.

Valsgarde: Set of Glass Pieces

At Valsgarde in Sweden was found a set of twenty-three gaming pieces. Fifteen were of translucent green-blue glass with spiral surface patterns in black, while the other eight were plain dark brown glass. The pieces were spherical with flattened bases, measuring 2.3-2.6 cm (0.9-1") in diameter.

Vendel: Three Bone Pieces

In the parish of Vendel in Sweden, a tenth century boat grave was found, containing various goods for buried person's future life. Among the items were three bone gaming pieces.

Warrington: Two Jet Pieces

Two carved pieces of jet where found in Warrington, England, 1852. One is elaborately engraved, and is larger than the other, suggesting that one is a king piece and the other a defender.

Waterford: Peg-holed Board

A fragment of a simple board was found in Waterford, Ireland. It has a raised border and a handle, and has holes for the insertion of pegged playing pieces.

Westness: Pieces

A set of 25 pieces were found at Westness, Rousay, Scotland. Twenty-four are spherical in form, while one is a hollow cylinder.

Whithorn: Stone Board

A rough drawing of the board and pieces from Whithorn.

A rough drawing of the board and pieces from Whithorn.

A thirteenth century stone graffiti board was found at Whithorn, Scotland. With the board were two stone pieces. The etched markings on the board are very faint, so it is difficult to see the layout, the centre being worn away completely. It is probable that this board was a grid of 7x7 lines, as with other boards from Scotland.

Woodperry: Single Bone Piece

A single piece was found in 1846 at Woodperry, Oxfordshire, England. The piece is cylindrical, and has a pattern engraved on the outside. The top is cut into a V shape.

Salmo: Gaming Pieces

In 2008-2010 a pair of buries boats was excavated in Salme, Estonia. There were dozens of men interred with the two boats, and an absence of the usual grave goods, so this burial is thought to be associated with an ill-fated raid. It dates to about A.D. 750, a little before the Viking Age.

Some goods that were found among the boats were 71 gaming pieces and some dice. The gaming pieces were of traditional hemispherical form as associated with hnefatafl finds. One of the pieces was decorated with an incised figure.

Deerness: Stone Gaming Board and Pieces

In 2011 a stone board, identified as a hnefatafl board, was found at an excavation at the Brough of Deerness in the Orkney islands of Scotland. A grid of lines is etched into the upper surface, forming nine rows of nine squares. The central square appears to be carved out into a cup shape.

With the board were found a number of disc-shaped gaming pieces carved from bone or antler. One of them is carved into the shape of a sword pommel.

Skamby: Amber Gaming Pieces

Amber gaming pieces from Skamby

Amber gaming pieces from Skamby

Image (C) Martin Rundkvist, used with permission.

A 2005 boat grave excavation at Skamby, Östergötland, Sweden revealed a set of twenty-three amber gaming pieces. The pieces are hemispherical, each measuring 35mm by 24mm. The boat grave is dated to the ninth century. The pieces have since been put on display at the County Museum in Linköping.

Bergen: Gaming Boards

Diagram of one of the gaming boards from Bergen

Diagram of one of the gaming boards from Bergen

A number of gaming boards have been found at Bergen, in Norway. Two of these are for hnefatafl, one having a nine men's morris game on the back. Both hnefatafl boards have thirteen rows of thirteen squares. One has the centre square marked with a star, and crosses marking cardinal points (perhaps the positions of the furthest defenders). There are no markings in the corners of this board. It dates from the late Viking age

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