A Hnefatafl in Scotland

Someone was playing board games in Viking Age Scotland.

This week, a hnefatafl has been found in Aberdeenshire, according to The Scotsman.

The Board Game

Hnefatafl, or King’s Table, is the Scandinavian version of the Germanic and Celtic board game called tafl. This strategic game is about a besieged king and his men trying to break out. For a fine explanation of the game, read here.

The Norsemen brought the game along on their travels. Gaming pieces have shown up across Europe, including the Birka warrior grave, and the Icelandic sagas refer to it several times.

The Book of Deer

Book of Deer (Source: Wikipedia).

The discovery in Aberdeenshire is intriguing. So far, there is no direct evidence of Scandinavian presence in North East Scotland during the Viking Age. Recent excavations at a Pictish fort may show a Viking raid (University of Aberdeen, May 2018). And the Old Norse names of a Jarl and his son in the mediaeval manuscript Book of Deer may point to their Norse heritage.

This Book of Deer is an illuminated gospel from the early tenth century and likely the oldest Scottish and Gaelic language manuscript in existence, “produced for private use rather than for church services”, according to Cambridge University Library.

The Lost Monastery of Deer

The gospel is central to a community project in which locals and experts have joined forces. For one, they are trying to find the lost monastery of Deer mentioned in the manuscript. Last year, they conducted a geophysics report and excavation near Deer Abbey in search of the ruins. And with success. A possible building structure was revealed along with mediaeval pottery, charcoal and a stone hearth (BBC, January 2018).  Thanks to these positive results, a new excavation is taking place at this moment.

Indeed, this is the spot where this hnefatafl has shown up.

To Be Continued…

The excavation is still ongoing. For the moment the gaming board is a beautiful piece of evidence in a possible building on site. Whether the future will reveal if this is another piece in the puzzle of Viking presence in eastern Scotland, we’ll have to wait and see.

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