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The Iron Age “Game of Mercenaries” likely inspired the popular Viking age board game called ‘Hnefatafl.’ Source: Olga Makukha /Adobe Stock

Researchers Find Relics from an Iron Age ‘Game of Mercenaries’

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Archaeologists excavating a burial in Norway have made a discovery that is offering a unique insight into Iron Age games and pastimes. They found evidence of a board game that was modelled on a popular Roman pastime. This is helping experts to better understand the history of Norway before the rise of the Vikings .

This important find was made by archaeologists from the University of Bergen in the Ytre Fosse that is adjacent to the Alverstraumen Fjord, in western Norway. They found the remnants of an Iron Age game in a cairn - a burial mound made of stones. This cairn is a circular construction which measures 25 ft. (7.62 meters) in diameter and is 1.6 ft. tall (0.49 meters). It was once set within a circle of rocks.

The grave cairn was discovered on a cliff overlooking the Alverstraumen strait. (University Museum of Bergen)

The grave cairn was discovered on a cliff overlooking the Alverstraumen strait. (University Museum of Bergen )

The Norwegian Burial Cairn

In the middle of the burial mound, the archaeologists discovered a smaller circular structure about 3.2 feet (0.98 meter) in diameter. Charcoal was found here so they believe it was almost certainly a cremation pit. Morten Ramstad, the lead archaeologist in the project, is quoted by Live Science as saying that “We knew that immediately we had the remains of a cremation.” However, little else was found, neither human remains nor artifacts. What made this grave special was the small number of Iron Age game pieces that were found.

One of the pieces was a dice (also referred to as a ‘die’), which Ramstad stated was “very rare,” according to The Smithsonian . It is elongated and has four sides with bullseye like figures, indicating zero to five. Also found were a number of round counters. The researchers believe that “the board game may have been inspired by a popular Roman pastime: Ludus latrunculorum , or the “Game of Mercenaries,” according to The Smithsonian .

The four sides of a dice, as well as the front and back sides of several other Iron Age game pieces found in western Norway. (University of Bergen)

The four sides of a dice, as well as the front and back sides of several other Iron Age game pieces found in western Norway. ( University of Bergen )

An Iron Age Game of Strategy

This was a strategy board game that was similar to chess or checkers and was played by two players. It was probably based on earlier Greek models of board games. Ludus latrunculorum is widely believed to have inspired the popular Viking age board game called ‘ Hnefatafl’ or the ‘King's Table,’ according to a statement by the research team quoted in The Smithsonian . The goal of this game was to get a king to safety and away him from his enemies.

Latrunculi found at Housesteads Roman Fort or Roman Corbridge, complete with pottery counters and dice containers. 2nd-3rd century AD. Corbridge Roman Town and Museum, English Heritage. (English Heritage)

Latrunculi found at Housesteads Roman Fort or Roman Corbridge, complete with pottery counters and dice containers. 2nd-3rd century AD. Corbridge Roman Town and Museum, English Heritage. ( English Heritage )

The discovery revealed a lot about the grave and who was buried in it. Ramstad is quoted by Live Science as stating that “board games were a symbol of position in society.” It is highly likely that the cairn was the final resting place of a member of the local pre-Viking aristocracy.

This area of Norway has many similar cairns of high-status individuals. This reflects the fact that it was once on an important trade route. Local rulers could demand tolls and other payments from merchants and could grow very rich. These board games would have been highly prized and have even been found in offerings to the gods in Denmark. But there have only been a handful of similar finds of Iron Age game pieces in Norway.

Ramstad is quoted in The Smithsonian as saying that the game pieces are “status objects that testify to contact with the Roman Empire.”  It is believed that they date from the 4th century AD. The pieces can help experts to understand the level of trade and cultural contact between the Romans and the inhabitants of pre-Viking Scandinavia . They also add to the body of evidence that Iron Age Norway was not isolated – it was connected with the rest of Europe and part of international trade networks.

A Window into Pre-Viking Society

The discovery of the Iron Age board game can also help us to understand Norwegian pre-Viking society. It may assist the researchers in understanding the nature of leisure and also societal relations. The boardgame also shows that in Iron Age Norway strategic thinking was valued by the aristocracy and that they were preoccupied with war. It also demonstrates that the elite was open to external cultural influences.

Top image: The Iron Age “Game of Mercenaries” likely inspired the popular Viking age board game called ‘Hnefatafl.’ Source: Olga Makukha /Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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