Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Some Puzzling Gaming Pieces from Warrington

The gaming pieces from Warrington in England.
The gaming pieces from Warrington in England.

Saturday, 14th May 2016

Listed in the Archaeological Finds page are two pieces from Warrington.  Both are made of jet, one large and much-decorated, the other small and plain.  These have often been regarded as chess pieces by those who haven't heard of hnefatafl, and as hnefatafl pieces by those who have.

I gained my knowledge of these pieces second-hand, from H. J. R. Murray's excellent book A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess.  Murray believed that hnefatafl was the only board game known to the Anglo-Saxons, and that these pieces were therefore hnefatafl pieces.

This week I came upon the original source of information for the pieces: Dr. James Kendrick's 1853 paper An Account of the Excavations Made at the Mote Hill, Warrington, Lancashire.  Alongside the description is a drawing of the two pieces, clearer than that included in Murray's book almost a century later.

At first sight the larger piece does have some resemblance to the simplistic knights of Islamic and early European chess pieces.  On the other hand, if Kendrick's assessment of their age is correct, and they are late Anglo-Saxon pieces, then they date from a time before chess was brought to England (as it was not brought over by the Danes, as Kendrick asserts).

Later authors mention a later Anglo-Scandinavian origin for these pieces.  But that would also leave their use ambiguous, as the Scandinavians were more hnefatafl players than chess players during their rule in the British Isles.  The Warrington gaming pieces are therefore very enigmatic, and we may never know for sure whether they were hnefatafl or chess pieces, or perhaps whether they were both.

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