Fascinating Medieval Gaming Piece Uncovered at Building Site in England
Next time you’re playing a board game with your friends and family, consider that you may be playing something that originated in the medieval era, or beyond. Archaeologists have made a fascinating discovery in Bedfordshire, England - a tableman gaming piece was uncovered at what has been discovered to be a medieval site. It is an insight into the pastime activities and gaming habits of those who lived here during the medieval era.
The excavations are being carried out at Bidwell West, near Houghton Regis and Dunstable, by Cotswold Archaeology in preparation for a housing development, according to a press release . In addition to the tableman, the archaeological team discovered a medieval timber-framed building and a series of medieval enclosure ditches.
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Tablemen and Board Games: Delving into the Latin of It
The gaming piece is made from a cattle mandible - a large, sturdy bone, which serves as the lower jawbone of a cow. Tablemen were commonly used to play various board games, where two players would roll dice and move their pieces across rows of markings.
The word "table" is derived from the Latin word "tabula" which meant "board" or "plank." The game “tabula” was first introduced to Britain during the Roman period and continued to be played into the medieval period.
Ludus duodecim scriptorium was one of the more popular table games played by the Romans. It was a game played using three cubic dice, with each player having 15 pieces to move. It is likely that the game of tabula was refined from Ludus duodecim scriptorium, and it became increasingly popular during the medieval period. Tabula is similar to backgammon and uses two rows of twenty-four points.
The tableman found at Bidwell West has a diameter of nearly 6cm (2.36 in) and is decorated on the face with concentric circles and a ring-and-dot design. Similar examples in both size and decoration style have been found at sites across England, and it became common during the 11th to 13th centuries, reports Heritage Daily .
The tableman found in Bedfordshire has a similar design to others that have been found. ( Cotswold Archaeology )
The concentric circles and ring-and-dot design on the face of the gaming piece are particularly interesting - they are both aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time. The circles may have helped the players keep track of the movement of the pieces across the board, while the ring-and-dot design could have served as a reference point for counting moves or scoring points.
“It is not always possible to identify which game the gaming pieces recovered from archaeological excavations would have belonged to, because there is often no surviving board. It is however likely, due to the association with the medieval site, the style of decoration, and the size, that our gaming piece would have been used to play tabula during the medieval period,” write the excavation team.
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In addition to providing entertainment, table games like tabula had several practical uses in medieval society . For instance, tabula could be used to teach military tactics and strategy, as the game involved the symbolic movement of troops across a battlefield. Playing table games helped (and continue helping) people develop mathematical skills, improve concentration, and learn about probability.
Table Games and Board Games in the Medieval Age
Table games were a popular pastime in medieval Europe , and they were played by people of all social classes, from peasants to nobles. The rules and designs of the games varied across regions and periods, but they typically involved rolling dice and moving pieces across rows of markings on a board, describes April Munday .
“Chess was probably the most popular indoor game for medieval nobles. It had its origins in India in the sixth century and came to Europe via Persia and Muslim Spain. The English phrase ‘checkmate’ derives from the Arabic ‘shah mat’ – the king is dead. The first time it was mentioned in Europe was when a priest was disciplined by his bishop for playing it in 1061,” she writes.
As mentioned, one of the most popular table games in medieval Europe was called ‘tables’, which was a precursor to modern-day backgammon. Tables was introduced to Britain during the Roman period, and it continued to be played in various forms throughout the medieval period. Tables was played on a board with two rows of 12 markings, and the pieces were moved according to the roll of three dice. The objective of the game was to move all of your pieces off the board before your opponent does.
Another popular medieval table game was ‘ hnefatafl’, also known as ‘the king's table’. Hnefatafl was played on a board with an 11x11 grid, and the pieces were moved around the board in a manner similar to chess. The objective of the game was for the attacking player to capture the king piece, while the defending player sought to move the king to a safe location.
Other table games that were played in medieval Europe include ‘mancala’, ‘nine-men's-morris’, and ‘petteia’. Mancala was a game of strategy and skill, played on a board with pits and stones, while nine-men's-morris involved moving pieces around a board to form lines of three. Petteia was a game of strategy and skill, played on a board with squares and pieces that moved in various ways.
Clearly, table and board games were a vital part of the social fabric of medieval Europe, providing recreational relief, along with the ability to learn strategy, skill, and other valuable skills to navigate life.
Top image: The tableman gaming piece discovered in Bedfordshire, England. Source: Cotswold Archaeology
By Sahir Pandey
Collier-Jones, C. 2023. Fun and games in medieval Bedfordshire . Available at: https://cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/fun-and-games-in-medieval-bedfordshire/.
Milligan, M. 2023. TABLEMAN GAMING PIECE DISCOVERED IN MEDIEVAL BUILDING . Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2023/04/tableman-gaming-piece-discovered-in-medieval-building/147085.