Hnefatafl: Younger than Chess?
Tuesday, 3rd September 2013
On almost every other site, and in many books, about hnefatafl, you'll read that the game has been played since AD 400. Some people even say the game had already been played long before then. But you don't see me push that claim on here. Why is that?
The evidence usually cited is the Vimose board, dated to AD 400. This is 18 squares wide, and is often linked with the board depicted in the alea evangelii manuscript. So great an authority as H. J. R. Murray was convinced that the board and the manuscript depicted the same game, so it's not surprising that the date of AD 400 is given a lot of credence.
But I was never really convinced. Only a row and a half of squares survive, so the number of rows was always assumed. As I studied the alea evangelii more closely, I also noticed crucial differences: the fixed men in the corners of the alea evangelii are absent from the Vimose board; I can't believe that fixed men would have been allowed to obscure part of the playing area for no reason, but whatever their purpose was, they weren't serving it on the Vimose board.
If the Vimose board isn't for alea evangelii then that isn't to say it's not for some other form of hnefatafl. But what other evidence is there? We know it's a hnefatafl board because hnefatafl was played by Scandinavians at about this time. How do we know it was played? Because we have this board! The usual logic is circular.
I joined the growing number of sceptics when I found a copy of Paul Du Chaillu's The Viking Age, published in 1889. This explains a lot about the context of the find. The gaming board was one of a large number of objects deposited in the bog, probably as a war booty offering, not a burial as some say. Most if not all of the objects are of Roman origin, not Scandinavian. They were probably taken from Romans by Germans.
This suggests that the Vimose board might be for ludus latrunculorum, still played by the Romans in around AD 400, as described in the Saturnalia of Macrobius. Recently I've seen more descriptions and pictures of Vimose artefacts, and found that there were three boards, some of them having markings for ludus duodecim scriptorum on the other side. This seems to demolish the one piece of evidence that hnefatafl was played as early as AD 400.
The next piece of evidence is the Golden Horn of Gallehus, dating to about AD 550. The board game it depicts is square, but doesn't really bear any strict resemblance to hnefatafl. If the circles around the board edge are taken as pieces, then it doesn't look like any other game we know of either, except for the Tibetan game of ming mang, a highly unlikely identification.
The earliest find I know of that suggests hnefatafl is the set of 71 gaming pieces from Salmo in Estonia, part of a hasty multiple burial that seems to be the result of a raid gone wrong. One of the pieces alone is specially marked as if to distinguish it from the others. It dates to AD 750, and until I learn of any earlier unambiguous finds I'll settle on the conservative opinion that hnefatafl was played by the eighth century.