Viking Period Amber Gaming Pieces

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The other day, I collected the larger finds from 2005′s boat grave excavations at the conservator’s studio. Among them are 23 amber gaming pieces, of which I have now taken nice photographs. The pieces’ median dimensions are about 35 by 24 mm.

If it weren’t for these gaming pieces, the boat grave dig myself and Howard Williams directed at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, would have been quite a disappointment for me. The other grave furnishings were few and understated, consisting mainly of a symbolic (indeed, incomplete) set of horse and driving gear. But these gaming pieces are really something! I quote from the report:

The surest indication of the grave’s date is the design of the gaming pieces. Pre-Christian amber gaming pieces are only known from Viking Period contexts in Sweden. The only known grave find before Skamby was Birka 524, a Middle Viking Period (10th century) weapon inhumation with 15 amber gaming pieces. The pieces from the Björkö grave however have a narrowed base, unlike the ones from Skamby that are widest at the base. This trait along with their size connects them to Vendel Period gaming pieces. The likeliest date for the Skamby gaming pieces is thus the Early Viking Period (9th century).

To my mind, the find resolves a little debate that has gone on for decades. Most 1st Millennium graves with gaming pieces contain rather few of them, generally made of bone, and usually they can’t be divided into distinctive groups for different players. It’s been suggested that half of the pieces were painted and that the paint has since decomposed.

The Skamby amber pieces are highly unlikely to ever have been painted. Instead, I believe that each player owned his pieces, and that when it was time to sit down for a game of hnefatafl, each player took out his own set. This gave a player the opportunity to impress his opponent with the fine make and expensive material of his pieces, after which the other guy would try to get even by winning the actual game. This would explain why the pieces found in graves are mostly all alike: it’s only one personal set each.

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Comments

  1. #1 Hans Persson
    February 9, 2007

    Each person having a private set sounds like a reasonable explanation. You just have to hope that your set isn’t too much like the other guy’s.

    If this is a Hnefatafl set, it seems there is one piece missing (to be able to play attacker). Do you know if there are any finds of boards, or were they typically of wood or something else perishable?

    What will happen to the pieces now? Do they go on display somewhere, or do they end up in your game drawer? ;-)

  2. #2 Jim Lemire
    February 9, 2007

    Just speculating and filling in some gaps here about my own complete lack of knowledge of ancient Viking games. I followed the link that Hans gave in the above comment to learn more about the game. Tell me if my understanding is correct here: It seems to me that the set of amber pieces you found (23 of them) would be an attacking set, especially since they are all alike. The opponent would supply the defenders and the king, which would be different (shaped, material, etc.), so there would be no confusion over which pieces belonged to whom. Is this correct or is my (limited) understanding of a more modern game? It would be intersting to hear more about gaming…

  3. #3 J-Dog
    February 9, 2007

    Yes, I second Jim’s suggestion. What was the game like? Easy like checkers, or challenging like chess? Did the winner take the loser’s set? Is this the origen of the phrase, “Everybody must get stoned?” Bob (Dylan)Zimmerman, did after all come from Minnisota, the home of the Vikings.

  4. #4 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 9, 2007

    “Gaming pieces”, my ****. This could be the earliest known occurence of pet rocks.

  5. #5 Martin R
    February 9, 2007

    Hans: I’m working on a paper about these and other things. Only two preserved boards allow us to count the number of squares, and they have 13 and 7 squares to a side respectively. So it seems that the number could vary, and so the number of pieces needed would also vary. One of the Skamby pieces is visibly larger than the others and might be used as a king when playing defender on a 15×15 board. Otherwise, it takes 24 pieces to play attacker on a 11×11 board. I don’t think the sets were specialised either for attacker or defender.

    The finds will end up in a museum either in Linköping or Stockholm. I hope to see them exhibited in Linköping.

    Jim L: You seem to have understood as much as I have. The rules of the Viking Period game are lost: instead there’s tablut, a 18th century game that Linnaeus saw among the Saami. It’s usually assumed to be close to the hnefatafl mentioned (but not described) in the High Medieval Icelandic literature.

    J-dog: The Saami game can be played on-line and is a lot like checkers, but the Viking one is lost.

    Mustafa: When I found the first piece I thought it looked like the plastic hat protecting the trailer hook under the rear bumper of a car!

  6. #6 Juniper
    February 9, 2007

    …. oh great martin… guess who looked over my shoulder while i read that article and is now bothering me… “i need one too…”
    (-;

    maike

  7. #7 Martin R
    February 9, 2007

    Making these pieces must have taken huge chunks of amber from the southern Baltic area. You need to carve out a piece without any large cracks before doing the fine finishing. So you’d better send your hubby to the beach to look for amber after a good storm!

  8. #8 Hans Persson
    February 9, 2007

    It would be cool if it was possible to display the game pieces at Lincon.

  9. #9 paddy
    February 10, 2007

    I once programmed a computer to play hnefatafl, so in the end I became quite good at the thing! It was a bit buggy, though…the game itself was a truly terrible CD-rom production called “Leif – the American viking” from 2000. If you happen to see it, steer well clear…

  10. #10 Martin R
    February 10, 2007

    Cool! And now you’re working on Atlahuaca, Aztec Warrior of Lapland?

  11. #11 Pierre P
    February 12, 2007

    “The only known grave find before Skamby was Birka 524, a Middle Viking Period (10th century) weapon inhumation with 15 amber gaming pieces.”

    There are a gravefind of around 10 amber gaming pieces from the gavefields of Harby, soth of Kalmar in Smland. They are comming from graveplunderings in the late 19th century, but still they are a grav find.

    Pierre

  12. #12 Martin R
    February 12, 2007

    Many thanks, Pierre, that’s very useful to know! I can’t find those gaming pieces in the Stockholm catalogue. Are they in Kalmar County Museum?

    Harby is a cool place. I’ve written about Vendel Period finds from one if its cemeteries.

  13. #13 Pierre
    February 12, 2007

    Yes theyre in Kalmar County Museum, I belive that some of them are actually out in their exhibition. If you have access to the book from the E 22 excavations (Mre, historien om ett smland 2001) there are a picture of them on p. 543. but otherwise not much information.

    Where have you written about Harby?

  14. #14 Martin R
    February 12, 2007

    Cool, Pierre, thanks!

    Finds from Harby in Ljungby parish are treated in my 2003 paper “Snake brooches of south Scandinavia” in Fler fynd i centrum, Uppåkrastudier 9, Lund.

  15. #15 Christina
    February 24, 2007

    J-dog: It’s somewhere between checkers and chess. Also, it very much depends on your oponent, just like chess, how difficult a game gets. You have defenders and attackers, and some people get awfully good at only one of those positions. It’s a fun game, and one for which I have not been able to find a good computer version that is “bug free”. There is a one of those companies that do at-home parties and sell very nice kids books, Usborne Books, that includes the whole game, with nice Lewis chess replica pieces in plastic, in a kit called Viking explorers or something like that. It retails at about $10, and it comes with a bunch of other stuff, like a little compass for the young viking etc. It’s worh the money, anyhow, especially when you can get one used on e-bay. We can’t all be as anal retentive as I was (hand casted Viking attackers and and Anglo-Saxon defenders in tin, painted them and made the board out of led came stained glass).

  16. #16 Piotr Adamczyk
    August 20, 2010

    just have founded this article – If you are wrtiting that only on those mentioned by you places were amber gaming pieces you are in big mistake.
    1. Truso (near nowadays Elblag, Poland) -at least 27 amber + at least 40 semi-finished or fragmentaric amber counters
    2. ribe – 3 unfinished
    3. High Street, Dublin – some amber gaming pieces in an amber worshop
    4. Trøgstad (Grevegg),Østfold (Norway) – 1 amber g.p.
    5. Gloppen (Hauge) (Netherlands) – some amber gaming pieces
    6. Furnes, Hedmark (Norway) – 2 amber gaming pieces
    7. Wolin (Poland) – also big number amber gaming pieces and semi-finished
    8. Birka 860A – 1 amber g.p
    9. Avaldsnes,Storhaug (Norway) – 18 amber g.p.
    10. Roholte (Denmark) – 1 amber king g.p.
    That some of the sites with amber gp. I know. just have a question – I am searching fo pdf-s and other documentation about gaming pieces and board games in viking times – archaeological findings.
    Till now my list counts c.a. 130 positions, but is still incomplete. So, if anoyone could help me, please contact.

    Piotr Adamczyk piotr.adamczyk@muzeum.elblag.pl
    The Museum of Archaeology and History in Elblag

  17. #17 Martin R
    August 20, 2010

    Thank you for the information. I certainly do not believe that Skamby and Birka are the only places in the world where amber gaming pieces have been found.

    Here is an academic paper on the Skamby grave:

    http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/MED52_03.pdf

    And here is the excavation report:

    http://www.archive.org/download/Skamby2005report/Skamby2005report.pdf

  18. #18 Piotr Adamczyk
    August 21, 2010

    On our exhibition we have a lot of amber :) Some scholars suggests that Truso was the centre of amber trade in a Viking period. In one of the houses, called by dr. M. F. Jagodzinski (the one who has discovered Truso in 1982) an “Amber-craftsman house” we have founded more than 10 kg of a good qauality amber (in a single deposit), c.a. 100 arabic coins and a lot of iron tools.
    My article about gaming pieces from Truso:
    you can find: http://ludicum.org/bgs08/bgs08-proceedings.pdf (this is not final version a Preceedings), but it is now incomplete due to the recent findings. In printed version pages are 165-172.

  19. #19 Martin R
    August 21, 2010

    Woah, that is one house I would have liked to excavate!