A rare, glass gaming piece has been discovered during an archaeological dig on Lindisfarne – the tiny Northumbrian island whose wealthy early medieval monastery was infamously raided by Vikings in AD 793, heralding the start of the Viking Age in Britain.
The gaming piece was discovered in September 2019 during a community-based archaeological dig led by DigVentures and Durham University, which has uncovered part of the iconic monastery.
Made of bright blue glass with exuberant white swirls, the gaming piece is crowned with a ring of five white bobbles, which mean it is likely to have been a kingpiece.
Dating back to AD 700-900, archaeologists believe it came from a set that would have been used for playing a uniquely Northern British version of ‘tafl’, a family of games which were derived from the Roman war game Ludus Latrunculorum, and played in Britain, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden before the arrival of chess in the 11th-12th centuries.
Other tafl pieces made of wood or bone have been found in elite burials from Anglo-Saxon England, but only one other glass tafl piece has been found in the British Isles, at the Pictish hillfort at Dundurn in present-day Scotland, making this Lindisfarne piece only the second to have been discovered.
The next closest examples were found near Dublin, Ireland, in Dorestad, Netherlands, and from a 12th century burial at Birka, Sweden.
“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, but 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,” said Lisa Westcott Wilkins, Managing Director of DigVentures.
“The Romans were very fond of giving gaming pieces as gifts to ‘barbarian’ princes, and as the game spread out of the Roman empire, different societies developed their own variations on the rules, including Northern Britain.
“In fact, we believe the piece had probably originally been buried with a member of the Northumbrian elite, whose grave was later disturbed,”
“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!” continued Westcott Wilkins.
Although there were many different versions, the games all follow roughly the same principle of defending a central king against attackers.
“It is extraordinary to find a glass tafl gaming piece like this in such perfect condition. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” said Mark Hall, a leading specialist in Roman and early medieval games, and Collections Officer at Perth Museum & Art Gallery, who inspected the piece when it was found.
Now in its fourth season, the dig has revealed part of a cemetery and a workshop associated with the monastery, both dating to AD 700 – 1000 when activity on the island was at its peak.
“This is a truly wonderful discovery, which gives us a very special insight into life in the monastery at the time” said Dr David Petts, Senior Lecturer in the Archaeology of Northern Britain at Durham University, who co-directs the excavation with DigVentures.
“It’s similar to a number of other examples found at settlements and trading sites around the edge of the North Sea, and shows us not only that there were people on Lindisfarne who had leisure time, but that they were well-connected” said Petts.
“Lindisfarne would have been a busy place back then. Thousands of people would have come on pilgrimage seeking miracles and cures, but the monastery also had strong royal connections: it sits directly opposite Bamburgh Castle, which was the seat of Northumbrian power. This meant it was also a place of refuge for kings, and was regularly visited by elites, nobles, and high-ranking clergy.
“We know that at least one king retired to the island to end his life as a monk, but before he joined the community he changed the rules to ensure that the monks were allowed to drink wine,”
“Although people tend to think of Lindisfarne today as a rather remote place, back then it was far from isolated. It was a nexus of cultural connections, with strong links to other parts of Britain, mainland Europe, and even further afield” said Petts.
This year’s investigation also uncovered two copper finger rings, a copper pin, small bronze buckle, and evidence that the workshop may have been related to metal-working, for which the monastery was famous.
Other discoveries include a set of rare early medieval carvings known as ‘namestones’, each of which commemorates someone who was buried on the island during this period.
A number of Anglo-Saxon coins were also found, including a coin minted for Aethelred I, king of Wessex from AD 865 – 871.
The excavation, which is led by DigVentures and Durham University, has been entirely crowdfunded by members of the public who are able to watch the discoveries online, or take part in the dig.
“Our team of professional archaeologists works alongside members of the public who want to make a real contribution to archaeological research. We provide all the training and supervision that individuals need in order to dig with our team or work with artefacts in our Finds Room, and experience what it’s like to make an archaeological discovery while learning in-depth how the process of archaeology actually works. It’s really thanks to them that this discovery has been made in the first place,” said Westcott Wilkins.
“In fact, any headline should probably read ‘Archaeologist’s mum finds 1,200 year old gaming piece’, because it was actually found by our Head of Fieldwork’s mother, Heather Casswell, who was taking part in the dig while visiting her son on her birthday!”.
The combined team from DigVentures and Durham University will return to Lindisfarne in September 2020 to continue investigating the site. Anyone who is interested in taking part can find out more about joining the team at https://digventures.com/projects/lindisfarne
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Notes to editors:
Please credit all images to DigVentures and Durham Universtiy.
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