Medieval game time in Aberdeenshire

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The gameboard showing both the grid possibly used to play hnefatafl and the Solomon’s knot. (PHOTO: Cameron Archaeology)

The search for the lost monastery where the Book of Deer – a tome containing the earliest surviving Gaelic writing – was written and illuminated (see CA 338) continued this summer.

Digging in the walled garden of Pitfour Estate near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, where the monastery is thought to have been located, the excavation uncovered a number of interesting finds. One of the most notable was a game board that may have been used to play the Norse strategy game hnefatafl. This pastime, played on a latticed board with two armies of uneven numbers, is thought to have been brought to Britain and Ireland by the Vikings.

Ali Cameron, the lead archaeologist on the project, said that, ‘it is a very rare object and only a few have been found in Scotland, mainly on monastic or other religious sites.’

While a date for the board has yet to be established, a similar example found in Birsay, Orkney, in 1989 was dated to between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, which coincides with the Pictish period in the region. Along with the grid pattern characteristic of the game board, a Solomon’s Knot – two interlaced loops that weave under and over each other with no clear beginning or end – was also inscribed on the stone. It is thought that this might be a later addition to the piece. It also appears that the board had later been cut into a circular shape (the original would have most likely been square) and potentially re-used as a lid for a pot or other container.

The board was found in garden soil above at least four different constructions: a stone structure, which had been dismantled and stone rubble spread over much of the trench; a post-hole structure, charcoal from which has been sent for radiocarbon dating (the results are expected in September); and at least two rather enigmatic stake-hole structures. There were several watercourses running through this trench and in other areas of the site, and stake-hole structures may be associated with water management. Post-excavation analysis is ongoing.

This article appeared in CA 343.

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