The Search for a Lost Scottish Monastery Reveals a Rare Viking Gaming Board
While you search intently for something, you may chance upon another rare discovery, one which deserves just as much attention. This is what has happened to an archaeologist and her team looking for confirmation of the location of a lost Scottish monastery linked to the famous Book of Deer.
Past excavations at the site show telltale signs that the monastery was likely built at the location of the dig near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. But some of the attention has had to shift away from the post holes and hearth for a moment – the most recent dig has unearthed a rare Norse artifact.
The Scotsman reports that archaeologist Ali Cameron and her team have found a stone gaming board which would have been used to play the Norse strategy game Hnefatafl. Cameron explained the significance of the find,
“It is a very rare object and only a few have been found in Scotland, mainly on monastic or at least religious sites. These gaming boards are not something everyone would have had access to.”
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Detail of the Viking gaming board, which has been described as a "very rare find". (Michael Sharpe/Book of Deer Project)
Hnefatafl, also known as the King’s Table, or tafl, is a Scandinavian chess-like strategy board game. It begins with a ‘king’ stone piece surrounded by twelve ‘protectors’ at the center of the board, while the opponent has two dozen pieces around the outside of the board, with which to ‘attack’ the king.
Although the Hnefatafl gaming board found in Aberdeenshire hasn’t been dated yet, a similar artifact found in Birsay, Orkney was said to have been made sometime between the 5th to 9th Century AD, dating it to the Late Iron Age/Pictish period in the region.
Cameron believes that the Christian symbol known as a Solomon’s Knot was probably carved onto the board later. Solomon’s Knot is meant to signify the unity of humanity with the divine or eternity. Following the initial analysis of the artifact, Cameron has also suggested that the gaming board may not have always been circular and it may have been used as a pot lid at some point.
In January, an excavation team working with the Book of Deer project in search of the monastery unearthed a hearth, charcoal, pottery, post holes, and a layer of stone near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Carbon dating places the site to between 1147 and 1260, in the medieval monastic period, and the stone and post holes suggest a circular building was once located at the site.
Excavations at the site. (The Book of Deer Project)
Cameron has been back on the site for the last couple of weeks with volunteers trying to find out if the post holes and stone are related to the monastic site. She told the Scotsman that the team is still awaiting results on the analysis of some charcoal found there.
“It’s really, really difficult to say what we have. I can’t call it at the moment. There are also remains of a wooden building and I have sent off samples of charcoal but we won’t know for another three months what the date will be. This has been a fantastic dig and people have been so enthusiastic. We don’t know yet what we have but looking for it is fun. If we don’t have the site of the monastery, then we will continue to look for it.”
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If it is determined that this is the site where the Book of Deer was created, it will become a nationally significant location. But as Bruce Mann, an archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, explained, the site holds historical importance regardless of the final outcome, he told the Scotsman in January, “These latest discoveries may at last hint that the mystery has finally been solved. More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too.”
Deer Abbey in Scotland. ( Public Domain )
The Book of Deer has been described “as significant as the Book of Kells in Dublin”, but Anne Simpson, chair of the Book of Deer Project, expressed her surprise that “even people locally don’t know about it.”
Apart from the clues scribbled in the margins which hint at the location of the monastery, the biggest draw of the Book of Deer is that it is the oldest known example of writing in Scottish Gaelic. Dr. Michelle Macleod, lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, explained, “The Book of Deer is a tiny book but it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland. We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic.”
Folio 29 verso from the Book of Deer (Cambridge University Library, MS. II.6.32), Portrait of Luke. (Public Domain)
Top Image: The Viking gaming board which has been found in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Source: Michael Sharpe/Book of Deer Project