Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Historic Hnefatafl Pieces, Part 1

Bone pieces from Bjorko grave 624.
Bone pieces from Bjorko grave 624.
Swedish History Museum (

Tuesday, 27th May 2014

Making a hnefatafl set is very rewarding. As I search around the world wide web for things about hnefatafl, I often see beautiful boards on which people have spent lots of time and effort. But so often, the pieces are a very disappointing afterthought. Wonderfully carved and finished boards are paired with uninspiring plain counters, or plain glass beads which, while pretty in their own right, don't do justice to the board they're paired with.

Not everyone can make a set of hnefatafl pieces like the famous Isle of Lewis chessmen, which as hand-made items would be as much a luxury item today as they were in their own time. But there are many historic sets of hnefatafl pieces that are more practical but no less beautiful in their own right, and probably more authentic for re-enactment and other public displays. In this series of four blog posts, I'll be looking at the various different types of hnefatafl piece used throughout history, and seeing how they could inspire modern projects.

This week, I'll start with the materials that were used. They were glass, various types of bone (including antler, walrus ivory, horse tooth and other types of bone and horn), jet, amber and bronze. Those are just the ones from confirmed finds. There is every probability that wood was also used, though wooden pieces are unlikely to have survived. And stone could have been used in the form of natural pebbles, as in many other games; these would not normally be identifiable as gaming pieces in an archaeological context.

Glass pieces were unlike the glass pebbles that people so often use today. They were blown pieces of various shapes, and were sometimes decorated with variations in colour. Transparent glass of blue or green would have black spiral patterns, as with many of the sets from Birka, and opaque glass would have layered colours as with the set from Gunnarshaug in Norway. Glass pieces would have been an expensive luxury exclusive to those of high status and great wealth.

Bone pieces were more widespread but still often took skill to make. Most of these were lathe-turned in various shapes. This was a craft that the Norsemen were known for; those in outlying colonies like the British Isles would probably have brought them over from Scandinavia where the skilled craftsmen remained in significant numbers.

Amber is another material often used, especially around the Baltic where it was easiest to obtain. There is some mystery around the use of amber for gaming pieces: given the vast range of hues, how was one side distinguished from another? It seems unlikely that such a beautiful material would have been hidden or defaced with pigment, yet so many collections of amber pieces have such a wide range of shades that it is impossible to divide them into two sides. There is a theory discussed elsewhere on this site; it's listed under "Related News" elsewhere on this page.

Jet is found in the British Isles, particularly around Whitby in Yorkshire, and some jet pieces have been found in British contexts. Its beautiful appearance and uniform colour present similar difficulties for reconstruction to amber: would two sides have been black against black? Possibly, in the case of both amber and jet, only one side's pieces used the same material.

Bronze has been found only in king pieces. One disputed find is a humanoid figure often identified as a hnefatafl king. Another more certain find has a bone piece topped with an ornate bronze mount. A similar configuration was used with iron; and iron pin portruding from one of a set of otherwise identical pieces.

There is little to say about the use of natural pebbles. Evidence is lacking, it is only by inference that one can assume that natural pebbles were found to play on hastily-incised boards of undressed stone. Of wood there is, to the best of my knowledge, no evidence, but its ease of working and its widespread use in the boards themselves prevent its being ruled out easily from the list of materials once used for hnefatafl pieces.

Many of these materials can be used or simulated today with varying degrees of crafting ability. Wood and natural pebbles are probably the easiest for people to obtain and work with; glass requires more skill. Opaque glass and some of the other materials can nowadays be simulated with modelling clay, self-drying or oven-baked, creating convincing replicas in look if not feel.

I've deliberately steered clear of discussing shapes in this first post. That will be the subject of the next two posts, the first of which will concentrate on the most intricate piece of all: the king.


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