SV: hist-games: Hnefatafl material at Hedeby

Peter Michaelsen PMI at KM.DK
Thu Aug 10 13:52:20 PDT 2006

I should also like to know more about the mentioned pieces and board fragments that has been interpreted as belonging to hnefatafl games.
I first read about these finds in the book Bræt og Brik. Spil i jernalderen, (Wormianum 1992), written by the Danish archeologist Karsten Kjer Michaelsen.
In his book K.K.Michaelsen brings both photos and drawings of the pieces found in Hedeby and Oldenburg, but unfortunately he does not give any reference to special literature about them.
He mentions the various kinds of materials used for game pieces in Hedeby, and tells that the board fragment is the earliest found in Scandinavia after the board fragment from Vimose on Funen (from c.400 A.D.). The photo on p.54 in his book shows what I saw at the Wikingermuseum Haithabu:
the board fragment with 10 pieces, one of which is taller than the other pieces, probably the hnefi. In the grave in Oldenburg, dated to the 10th c., the 36 pieces were made from walrus tooth and whale bone, while the king pieces was made from bronze. The proportion of dark and light pieces  indicates that one player had not always double as many pieces as the other.
Roman Grabolle of the University of Jena has made a long list of literature about medieval games and toys, see
In one of the catalogues mentioned there, I found a reference to hnefi stones of amber, found in Janów Pomorski, Poland, dating to the 9th and early 10th. c. A.D.: Wirczorek A./H.M.Hinz (Hrsg.), Europas Mitte um 1000. Katalog (Stuttgart 2000).
In a Norwegian book from 1947, by prof. in Archeology, Sigurd Grieg: Gjermundbufunnet (Oslo), there is a nice chapter about games. Prof. Grieg mentions some game pieces from the North Frisian island Föhr (Schleswig-Holstein), which were probably used for hnefatafl. I do not remember, if Grieg did refer to any special article about these game pieces. They might perhaps be mentioned in a more recent book by Silke Eisenschmidt: Grabfunde des 8. bis 11. Jhs. zwischen Kongeå und Eider, Univ. of Kiel. 
If the mentioned interpretations are correct, the archeological finds reveal that hnefatafl was not only a Viking game, played by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians; it was also played by the North Frisians in the western part of Schleswig-Holstein (only 50 km north of Dithmarschen),by the Slavonic Wagrians in Starigard, the original name of Oldenburg, by Slavonic tribes in what is nowadays Poland, and even in Ukraine. Haithabu/Hedeby was founded by Danes, but it was a very international trade place, placed immediately south of the Dannevirke/Danewerk, the wall which protected the earliest Danish kingdom against its southern neighbours from at least 700 A.D.

Kind regards,
Peter Michaelsen.

-----Oprindelig meddelelse-----
Fra: hist-games-bounces at
[mailto:hist-games-bounces at]På vegne af Damian Walker
Sendt: 10-08-2006 07:13
Til: hist-games at
Emne: hist-games: Hnefatafl material at Hedeby

Quoting Peter Michaelsen's message of Yesterday:

> one might add that hnefatafl was played in Haithabu/Hedeby near 
> Schleswig - pieces and board fragments have been preserved at the 
> Wikingermuseum Haithabu, where I saw them a few weeks ago - and 
> apparently also in the area of Oldenburg in Eastern Holstein, where a 
> set of pieces has been found.

I'd be very interested in learning more about the pieces in and board 
from Hedeby, if you, or anyone reading, has any information.  I know of 
two amber pieces and two bone pieces, one of the bone pieces being in 
the shape of a man.  I've seen pictures of these, but I've also seen a 
picture, captioned as finds in Hedeby, showing a great many more pieces 
and a fragment of board.

As for Oldenburg, I seem to remember mention of 37 pieces found there, 
but as with Hedeby I have very little information.  The number of pieces 
matches modern reconstructions for the 11x11 board (and some 
reconstructions for the 13x13) but I'd like to find out if there is a 
clear distribution of pieces between one side and the other (or indeed 
if there is an obvious king piece present).

I'm also told by a local archaeologist that there is a rich catalogue of 
gaming finds in Eastern Europe which is not widely publicised in the 
west.  The only thing I've seen relating to Hnefatafl is the mention on 
some web pages (and, I think, in at least one book) that the game was 
played in the Ukraine.

Damian -

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