SV: hist-games: Hnefatafl material at Hedeby

Damian Walker damian at
Wed Aug 16 00:57:07 PDT 2006

Quoting Peter Michaelsen's message of Aug 10:

> I should also like to know more about the mentioned pieces and board 
> fragments that has been interpreted as belonging to hnefatafl games.

I've been building up a catalogue of board, piece and artwork finds for 
some time now, though my work on this has stalled.  I'll see what I've 
got regarding the Hedeby pieces.  Unfortunately I'm largely confined to 
English language sources myself, partly as I only understand English and 
partly because of the difficulty of my getting hold of books in other 

> 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.

Sometimes the pictures themselves are worth quite a lot.  I'm of the 
opinion that we probably won't find any useful recordings of the rules 
now; smaller sources serve either to confirm what we know or, simply to 
throw matters into confusion (especially when taken too literally).

> 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:

On a photograph on the web I counted 12 squares along the longest side 
(which is not necessarily complete), though the photograph wasn't clear 
enough to show how many rows there are.  Details like this are also 
interesting, as they show the sizes of game that were played in various 

> 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.

Earlier players don't seem to have been as precious as we are about the 
precise numbers of pieces in the game, although sometimes this can be 
explained by missing pieces.  Some ratios that spring to mind are 1:4:11 
(Gunnarshaug), 1:8:13 (Scar), 1:6:20 (Birka 624), 1:8:17 (Birka 750).

> Roman Grabolle of the University of Jena has made a long list of 
> literature about medieval games and toys, see 

Thanks for this, it's in my bookmarks now.

> 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.

I have the reference for this, but have been unable to see the book (and 
for reasons above, will currently be unable to understand it).

> 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.

To that list you can of course add the Anglo-Saxons in England, the 
Celtic Britons in Wales, possibly the Picts in Scotland, and certainly 
the Celts in Ireland, to the Icelanders and Greenland settlers.  I'd 
like to think that the game reached Newfoundland and possibly the North 
American mainland with settlers, but there is absolutely no proof of 

Damian -

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