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Game pieces and board retrieved from the excavation site in Oslo, Norway.	Source: Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science in Norway

Game Pieces Of The Medieval Norwegian Dope Addicts

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Game pieces from the gaming and gambling history of Norway have been discovered in medieval Oslo. So bad did gambling addiction become that the king had to change national gaming laws.

An excavation in Oslo's Medieval Park has unearthed a solid wooden gaming-piece, a wooden gaming-board, a chess piece , and three soapstone game pieces. While these pieces were all designed for playing games, in reality they were tools to service widespread ancient dopamine addiction!

This Site Yielded ‘Thousands’ Of Artifacts

Archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, NIKU, have been digging into medieval Oslo since August last year. Mark Oldham is a project manager for the excavation who says the team ‘are pleasantly surprised’ by the collection of finds. According to Science Norway these included the first runic bone finds in Oslo in more than 30 years, and a carefully carved handle depicting a king holding a hunting falcon .

Left; Runic bone, (Tone Bergland / NIKU) Right; Medieval falconry figurine (NIKU)

Left; Runic bone, (Tone Bergland /  NIKU) Right; Medieval falconry figurine ( NIKU)

Oldham explained that the area was previously excavated while railway tracks were being laid, and this led the researchers to suspect more smaller pockets of deposits would be found between modern foundations and walls. However, the team of archaeologists unearthed large areas of intact archaeological layers and they reported ‘a number of structures such as streets and houses, as well as thousands of smaller finds’.

This wooden carved game piece found in the Medieval Park in Oslo most likely belonged to the popular medieval game of ‘Tables’, a precursor to modern day backgammon. Good for fun, and good for gambling. (Photo: Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science In Norway)

This wooden carved game piece found in the Medieval Park in Oslo most likely belonged to the popular medieval game of ‘Tables’, a precursor to modern day backgammon. Good for fun, and good for gambling. (Photo: Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science In Norway )

Digging Up The Ancestor’s Of Backgammon

It was ‘a little surprising,’ said Oldham, to find so much archaeology in one place. And now, adding to the intrigue off the site, these game pieces are filling holes in the understanding of how folk spent their down time. The game board and pieces ‘could have belonged to anyone – rich or poor, old or young,’ says archaeologist Oldham. It is thought these pieces were used in a game called ‘Tables,’ which was an early conception of backgammon.

The researcher told press that most people in the medieval period could themselves carve, or would have known somebody who could carve, wooden game pieces. And one particular discovery highlights the ‘no waste’ ethics of older times. A pattern was identified on the rugged side, and the curved inside of a unique a stone gaming-piece, showing it had been repurposed from a broken pot.

The hoard of game pieces are currently bagged, tagged and stored at the excavation field offices. (NIKU)

The hoard of game pieces are currently bagged, tagged and stored at the excavation field offices. ( NIKU)

The Rise Of Gambling In Medieval Norway

Professor Chris McLees is an archaeologist working out of NIKU s main office in Trondheim, in central Norway, and he is the author of Games people played. a seminal work on the subject of games in the Middle Ages . The writer says Trondheim was the 13th to 14th century capital of Norway, at which time it was known as Nidaros. The city served as the first seat of the nation's Christian kings, and McLees says archaeologists in Norway have excavated ‘plenty of these kinds of gaming-pieces from medieval Trondheim’.

‘People played games all the time, in various settings… At home, while having a beer at the tavern, anywhere and anytime really,’ says McLee. Excavators have also unearthed a lot of dice from medieval towns. So socially troublesome did gambling become in Medieval Norway that King Magnus Lagabøtes introduced new city laws around 1276 AD, declaring that anybody found gambling with cash would be fined and have their loot confiscated.

A simply carved medieval chess piece found at the Oslo site. (Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science in Norway)

A simply carved medieval chess piece found at the Oslo site. (Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science in Norway)

It Wasn’t Games, But Dope, That People Were Addicted To

Beyond the mainstream story about the discovery of gaming pieces in Norway, what we really have here is an insight into medieval dopamine addiction. Today’s dope(amine) addicts fuel their cravings with social media and Netflix, but gamblers in Medieval Norway also revealed in brain releases of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that makes you excited.

Where this chemical is most tragic for the gambling addict is while you'd expect to only feel excited when you won something, the human body produces this highly addictive neurological response even when one loses. Hence, for every wooden and stone game piece discovered in Norway there are a hundred ghosts of old-world dope addicts.

The gaming-pieces are presently in storage at the excavation field offices in Oslo but they will soon be shipped to the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. But it has not yet been determined whether or not they will be exhibited to the public.

Top image: Game pieces and board retrieved from the excavation site in Oslo, Norway. Source: Ida Irene Bergstrøm / Science in Norway

By Ashley Cowie

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