Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Historic Hnefatafl Pieces, Part 3

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

Tuesday, 10th June 2014

Last week I wrote about the various king pieces used in historic times. You might think the others are boring in comparison. But far from it! They are, of course, simpler in form and simpler to make, but you will probably appreciate that if you are about to make 24 or 36 of them to go with your king.

Attackers and defenders provide the closest thing to a standard in historic hnefatafl. Most pieces are what archaeologists call "hemispherical", but are really rather more than half a sphere. I prefer to call them "spherical with a flattened base", giving the pieces a height of about 75% of their diameter. This is enough for stability, while a true hemisphere would be more stable but difficult to pick up.

These spherical pieces were made out of a variety of materials: blown glass, amber, or lathe-turned bone. They are easy to make now out of modelling clay. I also discovered, last year, a supply of spherical drawer-knobs of exactly the right size and shape, though I have yet to make them into a hnefatafl set.

Many of these authentic spherical pieces had a hole in their base, like the drawer-knobs. Some say that this was for insertion of pegs, to be used on a peg-holed board like the one from Ballinderry. However, it's also likely that the holes - in the lathe-turned pieces at least - are simply part of the manufacturing process. Being in the base of the piece, the hole is not going to mar its appearance.

Other shapes are far less common. Some sets are conical, be it proper mathematically-correct cones or onion shapes (archaeologists often use the name "conical" to refer to both). Some glass pieces are of the conical form, like the ones at Gunnarshaug mentioned in an earlier article.

Some pieces of other shapes are under dispute as hnefatafl pieces. Button-shaped pieces tend to be from very early contexts, at a time when hnefatafl has not been verified to exist (see the blog post "Hnefatafl: Younger than Chess?" listed elsewhere on this page). The case is similar with the horse-tooth pieces which are cylindrical in shape.

There are a few disc-shaped pieces which may also be from other games. These, however, make excellent models for a simple hnefatafl set as they are so easy to obtain or to make in wood or in modern materials. They can also make very pleasing sets if they suit the king and the board.

Next week I'll conclude the series of blog posts with one about more modern ideas of how a hnefatafl set ought to look.


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