Viking Hnefatafl: it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye!

Since it's Christmas, or at least that bit between Christmas & New Year when everyone's feeling slightly sick on account of all the mince pies, turkey and chocolates they've been stuffing themselves with, the weather's awful, there's nothing on the telly and everyone's bored, this is a traditional time for the family to gather round and play board games. It always used to be Monopoly in our house, enlivened at least by the occasional pounce by the cat who like to steal the little plastic houses – I've still got that set, complete with teeth marks of a long dead moggy! Things weren't so different in the past, and, although the gaming pieces weren't made out of plastic, examples made from stone, bone and glass do survive archaeologically. We also have some passing references to game playing in the Norse sagas - usually in typical Viking fashion, associated with violence.


If you've got teenage boys you may be familiar with this scenario: they're playing a game, one wants to take his move back, the other won't let him, they quarrel. Mum or Dad says: "Play nicely boys, it's only a game, don't argue." Hopefully you've got very well-behaved boys and at this point they both apologise and get on with the game … but in one Saga account the fight carries on, with one of the boys sweeping the pieces from the board and whacking the other round the head before storming off, leaving his opponent in a pool of blood – different times! This seems to be a true story, from the Icelandic Thorgils Skarthi Saga in about AD 1242, a period of great feuding (although as far as I can tell from the Icelandic Sagas, all periods in Iceland were a period of great feuding!). The boys were called Thorgils Skarthi (the whacker) and Sam Magnusson (the whackee); the game they were fighting over was called tafl – the Viking game also known as Hnefatafl.


Here in Orkney we have several examples of hnefatafl gaming pieces and boards, often from graves, including one set from a grave at the Westness cemetery just 100 metres away from our site at the Knowe of Swandro, shown here as displayed in the National Museums Scotland,the hnefatafl pieces can be seen on the right and the other grave goods included a shield boss, arrowheads and a sickle:


The young man buried in this very fine grave may well have lived at our site at Swandro.

Other Orkney examples of hnefatafl pieces come from the Viking boat burial at Scar in Sanday, which also contained weapons and a finely carved whalebone plaque alongside the bodies of a man, a woman and a child – finds from this site are in the Orkney Museum. Hnefatafl sets and boards, recognisable from the playing pattern carved into the surface, certainly seem to have been important and went into the graves of high-status individuals particularly men, alongside weapons and other prized possessions.


Hnefatafl was important enough to be mentioned in the Sagas and some of the boards and pieces are very fine, but these sources provide little detail, and the references are easy to miss as the Saga translators inevitably translate the Norse word 'tafl' as draughts or chess (although the Norse for chess is skaktafl: it seems likely that tafl originally meant just the game we now call hnefatafl, but that as more games were introduced it was necessary to add a prefix to the word 'tafl' to indicate the different games). Orkney's own 12th century Earl Rognvaldr Kali Kollsson wrote a verse listing his achievements, and one of these is that he's a master tafl player.


We have some idea of how hnefatafl was played, curiously because of an eighteenth century journal entry by the famous Carl Linnaeus, who discovered Lapps playing a game called tablut. This game was finally identified as tafl in the twentieth century because the boards and pieces were like those found archaeologically.


Sometimes the boards are perforated (there's a very fine example from Ballinderry in Ireland and a fragment closer to home from the Brough of Birsay, Orkney) and the pieces have pegs - like a modern travelling chess set. You can imagine a Viking family crossing the North Sea in their boat:


'Are we there yet?'


'No'

'Are we lost again?'


'No'

'Are we there yet?'


'NO, now stop hitting your brother and have a nice quiet game of hnefatafl'


Again violence is never far from the surface in the Norse Sagas: for example in Grettir's Saga when Thorbjorn Angle was berated by his stepmother for laziness whilst playing tafl. Things got out of hand and she took one of the larger gaming pieces (one of the ones with a peg sticking out the end) and hit Thorbjorn in the face with it, putting out his eye. In response Thorbjorn chased her down and beat her severely - not quite the happy families gathered round the games table that we think of today!


Some of the simpler examples of gaming boards can be made with lines crudely scratched into a flat stone but with the same distinctive pattern - you often see these in medieval churches and monasteries.This simple board with playing pieces made from cattle phalanges (toe bones) was made for an open day event for local school bairns:


Archaeological Orkney examples include a simple stone board and a few counters from the multi-period site of Howe, Stromness and two examples of crude tafl boards from sites near the Brough of Birsay, one from the Pictish/Norse site at Buckquoy and the other from the Red Craig. Neither of the Birsay examples had identifiable gaming pieces, but nondescript objects such as seashells, bones or stones could have been used as in the reconstruction above. It has been speculated that these Birsay boards could be the earliest examples of the board so far found and might even indicate a Pictish origin for this essentially Viking game, especially since these sites have mixed Pictish and Viking remains; some people think alternatively that tafl developed from a Roman game that travellers were exposed to or that it was of Germanic origin. There are also medieval Welsh and Irish references that may imply a broad range of usage; even games pieces dating to before the Roman invasion have been found in England.


The use of some of these objects is obvious but in other cases much less so. The Peedie Pict is one example of a Pictish carved bone from Orkney that depicts a human figure and has scratches on the base that suggest it was moved around on a stone surface, perhaps being a game piece:


This lovely little piece was discovered by our very own Dr Dave Lawrence whilst sorting animal bones at the Orkney Museum – you can read his published paper for free by clicking here. If you're visiting Orkney be sure to call past the Orkney Museum to see the original.

Despite many Saga appearances, it is only through the combination of archaeology and a fortuitous journal entry by Linnaeus that we have a reasonable idea of how tafl was played. One important task remaining is the greater question of discovering quite what happened when the Vikings encountered the Picts in Orkney. The Knowe of Swandro may hold the key to unravelling this with evidence of high-status Pictish and Viking/Norse settlement uncovered so far. Something for you to think about over your next game of Monopoly – mind you don't have someone's eye out!


Further Reading - all freely available to download or read online:


Damian Walker's discussion of hnefatafl


Sten Helmfrid's excellent discussion of the game


Ballin Smith 1994 Howe: Four Millennia of Orkney Prehistory (SocAntSoc Monograph so a large file)


Brundle, A 2004 The Red Craig graffito


Curle, C L 1982 Pictish and Norse Finds from the Brough of Birsay (SocAntSoc Monograph so a large file)


Lawrence, D M 2014 A pictish origin for Hnefatafl?


Lawrence, D M 2005 An anthropomorphic carving from Pictish Orkney


Schädler, U The Doctor's game – new light on the history of ancient board games


Whittaker, H. 2006 Games Boards and Gaming Pieces in the Northern European Iron Age

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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk