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Sometimes there’s an archaeological find that makes all that laborious digging, careful brushing and meticulous cataloguing worth it – such as the 1,200-year-old board game piece that researchers have found on an island off the coast of northeastern England.
This is thought to be a ‘King’ piece from a Viking board game hnefatafl (“king’s table”), which is similar to chess. It’s made of white and blue glass, and is about the size of a small sweet or chocolate.
The archaeological treasure was uncovered on a site on Lindisfarne, a small island of huge religious and cultural significance in the Northumberland region, by a team from Durham University in the UK and crowdfunding archaeology organisation DigVentures.
Part of its value lies in its age: experts think it dates back around 1,200 years, originating in the 8th or 9th centuries. This is when the Viking raids on Great Britain were just beginning. The next 300 years of upheaval would reshape the country forever.
But despite the timing, the researchers aren’t convinced the piece was brought there by the Vikings.
“Many people will be familiar with Viking versions of the game, and I’m sure plenty of people will wonder whether this gaming piece was dropped by a Viking during the attack on Lindisfarne,” says archaeologist Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures.
“We believe it actually belonged to a version of the game that was played by the elites of Northern Britain before the Vikings ever set foot here.”
If the piece is from a local version of hnefatafl, it shows the growing influence of Nordic culture on the ancient monastery at Lindisfarne and the rest of the medieval Northumbrian region.
Either way, all versions of tafl game run along similar lines, with a king piece needing to be defended against a group of attackers.
This is only the second such glass piece to be discovered in the British Isles. Chess arrived in Europe a later on, during the 11th and 12th centuries.
According to the experts at the dig, the discovery of the piece helps to show how Lindisfarne was a busy, vibrant place – far from the image of austerity and simplicity that’s often associated with medieval Christianity.
“The sheer quality of this piece suggests this isn’t any old gaming set,” archaeologist David Petts, from Durham University, told Esther Addley at The Guardian. “Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle.”
What’s also rare is the way the piece was found. DigVentures is a crowdfunding enterprise that relies on donations and support from the public to finance digs, and the ongoing work at Lindisfarne has been running for four seasons.
Not only that, but this particular piece was found by the visiting mother of one of the archaeologists – showing how volunteers from the public can still get involved in the most valuable of archaeological finds.
The item helps to paint a more detailed picture of life on Lindisfarne at the time. Copper finger rings, a copper pin and a small bronze buckle were also found during this latest dig season.
“It’s amazing to think that when the Vikings did land here they could, in theory, have sat down with the monks of Lindisfarne to play a game that would have been familiar to both cultures, although they would almost certainly have argued over whose rules to play by,” says Westcott Wilkins.
You can learn more about the dig – and even get involved in the 2020 work – by visiting the project page.