Sometimes there is an archaeological discovery that makes it worthy of all the tiring work, careful brushing and meticulous cataloging - like the 1,200-year-old board game piece that researchers found on an island off the coast north-eastern England. This is thought to be a 'King' piece of a Viking board game hnefatafl ("king's table"), which is similar to chess. It is made of white and blue glass, and is the size of a small dessert or chocolate. The archaeological treasure was discovered at a site on Lindisfarne, a small island of enormous religious and cultural significance in the Northumberland region, by a team from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom and the DigVentures crowdfunding archeology organization. Part of its value lies in its time: experts think it dates back to around 1,200 years, originating in the eighth or ninth century. This is when the Viking raids on Britain were just beginning. The next 300 years of upheaval would have reshaped the country forever. But despite the times, researchers aren't convinced that the piece was brought there by the Vikings. "Many people will be familiar with the versions of the Viking game and I'm sure many people will wonder if this piece of the game was dropped by a Viking during the attack on Lindisfarne," says archaeologist Lisa Westcott Wilkins, CEO of DigVentures. "We believe it actually belongs to a version of the game that was played by the elites of Northern Britain before the Vikings ever set foot here."
If the piece is from a local version of hnefatafl, it shows the growing influence of Nordic culture on the ancient monastery at Lindisfarne and the rest of the medieval Northumbrian region.
However, all versions of the tafl game run along similar lines, with a king piece being defended by a group of attackers. This is only the second piece of glass to be discovered in the British Isles. Chess arrived in Europe later, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to the experts of the excavation, the discovery of the work helps to show how Lindisfarne was a place full of life and lively, far from the image of austerity and simplicity often associated with medieval Christianity. "The sheer quality of this piece suggests it is not an old play set," said Durham University archaeologist David Petts to Esther Addley at The Guardian. "Someone on the island is living an elite lifestyle." What is also rare is the way the piece was found. DigVentures is a crowdfunding company that relies on donations and support from the public to finance the excavations and the work in progress at Lindisfarne has been in progress for four seasons. Not only that, but this particular piece was found by the host mother of one of the archaeologists, demonstrating how the volunteers of the public can still be involved in the most precious archaeological finds. The object helps to paint a more detailed picture of life on Lindisfarne at the moment. Copper rings, a copper pin and a small bronze buckle have also been found during this last excavation season. "It is amazing to think that when the Vikings landed here, in theory, they could have sat down with the Lindisfarne monks to play a game that would have been familiar to both cultures, although they would almost certainly have argued over whose rules to act," says Westcott Wilkins.
You can learn more about the dig – and even get involved in the 2020 work – by visiting the project page.