Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Historic Board Markings, Part 3

Reproduction of tawlbwrdd illustration
Reproduction of tawlbwrdd illustration

Sunday, 17th November 2013

This week I'm rounding off the little series on historic board markings by looking at two thematic groups of boards: those with virtually no markings, and those with purely decorative markings.

The first group is small, especially if I exclude the boards that lack markings because of wear, rather than by design. The most well-known example is the one from Toftanes in the Faroe Islands. Only half of it survives: it is in the form of a serving platter with a single handle. The central square is marked with a plus-shaped cross. All this marking tells us is that the board was almost certainly used for hnefatafl.

There are at least two boards with purely decorative markings. The board from the Gokstad ship in Norway has rows of alternate squares decorated in a form completely irrelevant to hnefatafl. Some say that therefore this is not a hnefatafl board, but the markings are not relevant to any Viking-period game that we know of.

Another board with purely decorative markings is the illustrated tawlbwrdd from the Peniarth Manuscript. This has a marked central square, but across the whole board, alternate rows are shaded dark and light. This is certainly tawlbwrdd, and the presence of this irrelevant shading supports the idea that the Gokstad board is actually for hnefatafl.

One impediment to making sense of board markings is the scarcity of complete surviving boards from the period. Those made of wood have often rotted away. Stone boards have fared better, but still many are broken or worn. No boards of leather survive, and we only know of the existence of animal skin boards from Linnaeus and his account of the reindeer skin tablut boards of the Sami.


Actually, I do not think that the board that Linnaeus described was made from leather. In his description, nothing is said about the material, and looking at his pictures of the game pieces, I find it hard to imagine balancing any of the pieces on a leather board spread out on the ground, or on any non-modern furniture.

Jonas (conanlibrarian) - 13:45, 16/01/2014

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