This little artefact from Skara Brae demonstrates two problems with old game pieces. The accompanyin label says It is feasible that these bone objects [not shown] may have been used as dice. This whalebone has partially groved, perhaps to make ‘dice’.” For archaeologist and museum workers, it can be hard to recognise the parts. Is this bone disc a game piece or a button or a bead or small weight or… Is this small stone even an artefact? Is this… look we don’t even know what is is. It might be part of a game. This might be why many of the game artefacts that get put out for display are carved chess pieces.

The second problem is for photographers. These artefacts are usuall tiny, behind glass in museum rooms with low light. They’re difficult to photograph, and when you have a whole museum (or town) to get through, it’s not sensible to take too long trying to take a good photo of one display. So I hope you’re forgive the quality of the photos.

So, here are some old game parts, from Neolithic (above) to Medieval. Text in italics is from the label on the display.

Glass gaming pieces, AD 43-410. That’s Roman.
(Yorkshire Museum)

A replica of a late Iron Age gaming piece, found in a broch.
(Scalloway Museum, Shetland)

Shetland Museum (Lerwick) also has Iron Age playing pieces. The little black guy is similar to the one at Scalloway (above). The two pieces on the right are dice.

From a panel at the Orkney Museum (Kirkwall)
The Picts enjoyed board games, usually battle games for two players. Most of the surviing boards are just stone slabs on which the playing pieces might be pebbles or chells. Carved playing counter were probably used on larger wooden boards which have no survived. Peg-hold obards were ideal for playing on board ship or in poor light nd the hearth on a winter’s evening.

This [above] is one of three stone gaming boards from the Buckquoy excavation. This board is used for modern display for the carving has been highlighted with chalk. It is of the usual shape, with seven lines in each direction and a circle round the centre intersection. The boards could have been used for a game like Viking “hneftafl”There’s a photo of righthand board here.

Whalebone gaming pieces Buried in a leather or cloth pouch. The “King” piece is indentifed by an iron pin. (Orkney Museum, Kirkwall) The thing at the bottom is a Viking comb.

11th century chesspiece. This beautiful chesspiece is carved from rock crystal. Its absctract form makes it hard to say which piece it represents. (Tower of London)

Lewis chess pieces. Found 1831 on the island of Lewis, Scotland. Made in Norway in the late 12 or early 13th century, from walrus ivory & whale teeth. There were 78 pieces found, or parts from four sets. (British Museum, London)

This little chesspiece didn’t photograph very well but is too lovely not to share. It’s at Barley Hall, a medieval town house in York.
This chess piece is made of jet decorated with a ring and dot motif, and represents the rook (or castle). The opposing pieces belonging to the same chess set would have been made of bone or ivory.

Tablemen 13th Century
These two playing pieces are made of bone. . . . They could have been used to play “Tables”. This was a popular game which had been known in England for a thousand years before Henry and Edward. Tables later developed into backgammon. (Tower of London)

Leave a Reply