Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Some Interesting Information on an Old Gaming Board

Two of the boards from Vimose, showing one side of each.
Two of the boards from Vimose, showing one side of each.

Tuesday, 29th December 2015

I've written in the past about a gaming board found in Vimose, Denmark. This gaming board, dating from about A.D. 400, is supposed by many to have been a hnefatafl board. It has given us the commonly-accepted theory that hnefatafl was around in A.D. 400, and that it therefore predates chess.

In previous blog posts and information I pointed out that the board had a Roman game on the back, ludus duodecim scriptorum (the game of twelve lines, a predecessor to backgammon). This and other facts about the board's context makes it more likely that the incomplete grid was a Roman rather than Scandinavian game, probably ludus latrunculorum (the game of little soldiers, a strategic battle game).

In doing some further research I've found some more information about this board, and about others like it. I've been reading a paper by Oskar Spjuth, who has done some deep research into gaming boards centred around Scania in Sweden.

This kind of gaming board is more common than is usually thought, and Spjuth provides some examples that are remarkably similar. There were in fact four boards of this type found at Vimose, along with two oblong dice, four cubic dice and eighty playing pieces. Spjuth doesn't date them, but I assume they all date from the same period.

But very similar boards have been found elsewhere. In Leuna in Germany, a board with the same 18x18 grid on one side, and with ludus duodecim scriptorum on the other, was accompanied by 59 pieces, 29 black and 30 white. If one black piece was missing, then not only does the board match up with those at Vimose, but the pieces match up precisely with the number needed for the Greek game of petteia - an ancestor of the Roman ludus latrunculorum.

This tells us nothing that some of us didn't already know about hnefatafl: that it probably doesn't date from A.D. 400, at least not on the basis of these boards. But the information does shine a light on hnefatafl's ancestor, and hints at a level of standardisation not previously known for ludus latrunculorum: that 18x18 squares with thirty pieces per side might have been reasonably common, rather than an unusually large example found only at Vimose.


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