By early 9th century, the Orkney Islands, an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, pretty much became the headquarters for pirate raids and expeditions mounted by the Vikings against both Norway and mainland Scotland. In fact, the area later became embroiled in the dynastic politics of the Norsemen, and as such was under Norse (and later Norwegian) rule till 1472 AD. Suffice it to say, the archipelago is home to a flurry of Viking archaeological sites and specimens. And now a Scottish academic, Mark Hall of Perth Museum, has unveiled how at least two of these burial sites in Orkney contain board games that accompanied the body of the occupant. According to the researcher, these board games were arrayed alongside the warrior to symbolically provide him with ‘entertainment’ even in his afterlife.
Interestingly, these Orkney burials are just two among the 36 board game burials of Vikings that are spread across Northern Europe. In any case, focusing on the Orkney ones, one of the burials from the 9th century Rousay site consisted of one male who was accompanied by 25 game pieces made of bones. The other burial at the Sanday site was a tad elaborate, with its occupants comprising one adult male, a young boy and an elderly woman – all of whom were accompanied by 22 game pieces made of whalebone. Hall made it clear –
Thus equipping the deceased in burial would have seen them provided for in afterlife both as an act of remembrance and to make sure the dead were not lacking in anything, ensuring that they would move on and not – disturbingly – be drawn back to the living world.
Now interestingly, while the board games were considered recreational in their scope, the Vikings also attributed some ‘martial’ value to these pieces. Consequently, the need for quick mindedness and strategy in these games (like hnefatafl, the early medieval Nordic equivalent of chess) often symbolically mirrored the deceased man’s status as a steadfast warrior in his actual life. As Hall further wrote –
Just as in life, where success on the gaming board – which needed strategic thinking as well as fighting ability – could be seen to confirm and add to the status of an accomplished warrior, in death the inclusion of a board game signalled ability and success as a warrior and by implication preparedness for the challenge ahead.
Mark Hall’s research was originally published in the European Journal of Archaeology.