This beautiful piece of worked glass, unearthed during Dig Venture’s excavation this summer on Lindisfarne, has been revealed to be a rare archaeological treasure. It is tiny, the size of a sweet, and could easily have been discarded as a pebble. But archaeologists believe the object, made from swirling blue and white glass with a small “crown” of white glass droplets, is a gaming piece from the Viking board game hnefatafl (“king’s table”), or a local version of the game.
The gaming piece came from a trench that has been dated to the eighth to ninth centuries, according to the project’s lead archaeologist, David Petts, putting it squarely in the most notorious period of the island’s history, around the time of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. Even if the game was being played by wealthy monks or pilgrims before the Vikings attacked, he says, it shows the influence that Norse culture already had across the north Atlantic.
I felt a joyful sense of connection when I read an article about the discovery in ‘The Guardian’. In my novel, “Place of Repose”, two of the characters settle down to play – yes, hnefatafl – the very same boardgame as this piece belongs to! a real world link to a fictional scene, set in the same period as this discovery dates from, the 9th century. Eadred and Guthred play with horn figures, but now I am re-imagining the scene with the pieces in glowing blue and white glass!
Here’s part of the scene from ‘Place of Repose’: Abbot Eadred, a Saxon monk, is playing the Danish king of York, Guthred.
“The tafl board is finely carved of polished elm wood, with the nineteen square chequers inlaid in light wood. Guthred takes up the two bags of taflstannas and broods for a moment. Then he looks up at Eadred, all charm. ‘Why not take the king today, Father? Let us see if you can preserve him from my warriors.’
Eadred smiles his assent and takes up the smaller bag. He tips out his twenty-four dark men and their king. Each piece is a squat hemispherical warrior, carved from horn. The king stands higher than the other pieces; he is carved from wood and brightly painted. Guthred has forty-eight light men. He waits while Eadred positions the king in the centre of the board with his bodyguards around him, then tips out his pieces and arrays them round the edges of the board. Eadred’s king must defeat the opposing warriors and manoeuvre his way to one of the four corners of the board. Here, only a king may sit.
‘There, my lord – I am ready for you.’
‘Indeed father, my men are ready for you. I swear they will show you no mercy.’
Eadred moves the first of his pieces and the game begins. Like all novices, Guthred is eager for captures, though his early successes are easily undermined by the Abbot’s seasoned tactics. Today, Eadred observes, he is trying a new strategy. Instead of bold sorties, he is bringing his army forward steadily, massing them closer and closer to the king. Eadred picks off a few of the front men but Guthred perseveres. Both men lean forward, intent, grey head and fair head close together.
‘Ha! I think I have you, Father!'”
Who is the winner? Read the book to find out! “Place of Repose” is on sale from February 15th: https://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/fiction/cuthberts-final-journey
To read ‘The Guardian’ article about the discovery in full, click on the link here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/06/boardgame-piece-first-viking-raid-found-lindisfarne-archaeology