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Hnefatafl Hunting: English Searchers Make a Good Fist of It



It seems a near certainty that all TimeLine Auctions catalogue readers will have heard of The Lewis Chessmen. Perhaps fewer will be aware that this remarkable group of more than seventy Viking gaming pieces, carved from walrus ivory and sperm whale teeth, came to light on the Scottish island in 1831 when farm animals driven along a Lewis foreshore path strayed from their usual route, trampled part of a sand-dune, and tumbled a stretch of sandstone wall, behind which the herdsman discovered several dozen gaming pieces probably dating from the 12th century. Another agricultural worker, in this case a twelve-year-old boy from Rällinge in Södermanland, Sweden, came to public attention in 1904 while helping to harvest the crop in a local potato field. As he lifted his digging fork, he brought up a seated Viking Age figurine in bronze; possibly a gaming piece, approximately 2½ inches in height. The statuette wears a conical headdress, clasps his pointed beard, and displays an erect penis. The find is now in the collection of the Swedish History Museum, Stockholm.

More than a century earlier, in 1815, yet another agricultural labourer, this one at work on a farm near Eyrarland, in the Akureyri area of Iceland, unearthed a bronze statuette. The seated figure, also 2½ inches tall, dates from about 1000 AD, and is described as a Viking gaming piece that may depict the Norse god Thor. It is now displayed at the National Museum of Iceland, in Reykjavík.

What those discoveries hold in common lies in the roles the figurines probably played in the game Vikings and Anglo-Saxons called tafl or taefl; an expression they used in the way modern English speakers might ask, “Shall we play cards?"; the question is invariably followed by a discussion on which particular card game we feel in the mood for – stud poker, or snap cards, for example. Given a choice, Vikings usually favoured hnefatafl; but knowing its name does not reveal its rules of play, according to Hoyle, as we might put it. Different versions of hnefatafl found favour across the Viking world, with several localised variants. Precise instruction on how to play any version of the game was either not written down, or has not come down to us, save for a few clues summarised further down this page.

A quite different fate befell the two-player board game known as The Royal Game of Ur, first recorded in Ancient Mesopotamia during the early third millennium BC. It remained popular throughout the Middle East, and in Cyprus and Crete, down to Late Antiquity, in part thanks to a Babylonian scribe who wrote the rules of play on a cuneiform clay tablet which still survives. From it, players learned how to play, and kept The Royal Game alive for many centuries after Mesopotamia faded into dim history.

From Nordic sagas, and other verbal sources, we can put together much about what happened during hnefatafl games. We know that two players faced each other, as defender and attacker, across a rectangular chequered board, which looked not unlike a modern chessboard, though board size differed markedly throughout the Viking world. The defender’s force consisted of light-coloured pieces, one of them a king, usually identified by his greater dimensions and elaborate battledress or other attire. The defender placed his king on the board’s centre square and grouped his pieces in close protective formation around the king. The attacker, usually commanding a larger force, but having no king, grouped his darker-coloured pieces in offensive formations around the defenders. The rule on moving pieces was simple: they could move in straight lines, to left or right across the board; or in straight lines up and down the board, but not diagonally in any direction. (Identical rules govern moving a rook or castle in modern chess.) Any piece could fall to the enemy, and face removal from the board, if sandwiched on two opposite sides by two opponents; or if trapped against a side of the board by a single opponent. The king remained safe from capture when on his centre square; and he won the battle if, with the aid of his supporters, he could reach any of the board’s four corners, where impregnable fortifications gave him total protection.

Archaeological excavations on undisturbed Viking graves, as well as metal detector surveys on land where Viking graves were ploughed up years ago, have revealed that jarls, or earls, as well as the more prosperous among free karls, frequently kept their hnefatafl boards and playing pieces close when they went to their graves. Mourners must have placed the sets alongside corpses before sealing their tombs. A possible motivation comes from hnef, the first four letters of hnefatafl. In Old Norse it means fist; and it was also the name of the king-piece in the board game. If you have ever witnessed dominoes played in the Caribbean, you will know that it rapidly builds up to a noisy, boisterous contest, with a bone slammed down as each player thumps the table with a clenched fist. That seems to have been the preferred way to play hnefatafl in life and after death, if only to make one’s tomb a livelier abode. Less well-off Vikings also seem to have gone to their graves with hnefatafl sets to play in the next life; but theirs usually consisted of pieces made by casting molten lead in thimble-like moulds, with the hnef identified by a rudimentary crown, making the king-piece slightly taller than the rest. In England those leaden castings have come to light in substantial numbers, and confirmed the popularity of hnefatafl at all Viking social levels.

It has to be admitted, however, that despite the continuing, perhaps increasing, popularity of metal detecting, the number of metal figurine king-pieces found across England has so far lagged well behind finds turned up in northern Europe and Scandinavia. At TimeLine Auctions, we feel that the hammer price of £120,650 achieved by LOT 0492 - The Bradwell Anglo-Saxon Chess Piece - in our 24th November 2020 auction demonstrates that English detectorist are making a fist of it as they quest for more lost hnefatafl playing pieces. Watch this space …

Brett Hammond (Chief Executive Officer), TimeLine Auctions, 13th March 2024