Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Mystery of Amber

Amber gaming pieces from Skamby
Amber gaming pieces from Skamby
Image (C) Martin Rundkvist, used with permission.

Thursday, 12th September 2013

Over the past year or so, I've started to become curious about the amber gaming pieces that have been found in various archaeological excavations. They seem to be either all of one colour, or of a range of shades. In either case, it's difficult to separate the pieces into two distinct groups. Surely such an attractive material wouldn't have been covered with pigment?

As always, I find that I'm not treading any new ground here. Apparently the debate has been going on for decades. Martin Rundkvist thinks he has found a solution, as reported some years ago in his Aardvarchaeology blog: The theory is that, effectively, the "sets" of pieces we find are only half a set. Each player would have his or her own set of pieces for one side only, and these would be combined to play a game.

I'm yet to be convinced that this is the solution. There are many sets which do appear to have pieces for both sides, some notable examples being the glass pieces found on the island of Birka. This would make the half-sets used to play each other far from a universal custom. It also raises the question of what happens when two players meet with similar sets, for example, two sets of amber.

It's an attractive theory, and it would conveniently explain why there are few if any sets of 49 pieces for the bigger 13x13 boards. But I'm not sure I can accept it without further evidence. Which is a shame, as I'd love to make some replica sets in simulated amber, using Fimo or similar modelling clay, but as yet I can't be confident of what such a set would really look like.


Yeah, I'm also very interested in making amber game pieces. Fimo or clay wouldn't do very well thou as it has no opacity to it as polished amber has. You could arguably have polished and non polished amber pieces, and centuries later the shiny polish finish would most likely be far gone. I heard you can heat the amber up to a certain temperature in water to make it malleable and clear out impurities/bubbles. So the main difficulty would be to get a sufficient supply at a reasonable cost.

André Strømodden - 19:56, 29/02/2016

Search for rockhound amber.

It is sold in bulk.

Ken Moore - 03:41, 22/08/2016

I wonder if the amber could have been the head piece on a wooden body.  The body could have had the distinguishing features for attackers and defenders (such as carvings or different colored wood).

Liz Lam - 06:20, 22/08/2016

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