Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Historic Hnefatafl Pieces, Part 2

Glass pieces from Birka grave 750.
Glass pieces from Birka grave 750.
(C) Swedish History Museum (

Tuesday, 3rd June 2014

In most mediaeval hnefatafl sets, the greatest effort in decoration was spent on the king, the most important piece in the game. This led to a variety of shapes that defy any kind of standardisation, or even categorisation, with a number of unique examples.

The most impressive group of king pieces are the humanoid ones. These are also the most contentious: some of them have been found alone, leading some to question their nature as gaming pieces at all. But others have been found with sets of plain gaming pieces, and no other obvious candidate for a king piece if hnefatafl is their game. These are in many varieties of material, from carved bone to cast bronze, and an amber figure from Roholte in Denmark is of half a human, from the waist up.

There are some formulaic representations of humanoid figures, too, mostly in glass. These have simple conical bodies topped with a round head, the head containing decorations of black glass to show rudimentary facial features and sometimes a little crown. One of the most appealing hnefatafl kings ever made is of this type, the glass king from Birka Grave 750, with his cute little eyes and nose picked out in black.

Many kings are more abstract, but still aim to be more ornate than their companions. A few pear-shaped kings have been found. These pear shapes are often topped with a point and appear to be lathe-turned. All such pieces I know of are in bone or antler, examples being the one from Jarlshof in Shetland, and the broken piece from Trondheim.

Sometimes the king pieces are not much different to the others in the set. One of the kings from Birka, grave 624, is the same hemispherical shape as its companions but is topped with a bronze mount. Another from Scar in the Orkneys is shaped like its companions but topped with an iron pin.

The jet piece from Bawdsey is very simple in shape; a cuboid with a faceted top. But it is covered in surface decoration, with a number of abstract patterns carved into every facet - including the underside!

In addition to these, there are many other oddities, too many to list. One of the pieces in Birka (grave 886) is actually less impressive than the other pieces, being slightly smaller and flatter, but is still regarded as the king, because its differences stand out. A similarly unimpressive piece from Westness is a small hollow cylinder, its companions 24 hemispheres that dwarf it.

An authentic king piece in a modern hnefatafl set could cost more money or labour than the rest of the set put together, especially if you want a humanoid king. Those with some skill could craft such pieces out of wood or modelling clay. The formulaic humanoid pieces could more easily be achieved by obtaining plain pawns and, if necessary, painting them.


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