As It Happens

Archeologists unearth 1,200-year-old board game piece on U.K. island

Archeologist David Petts says a glass artifact discovered during an excavation on the island of Lindisfarne is a piece from a board game played during the Viking Age.

Archeologist David Petts says the artifact is a window into the 'crossroads of the early medieval world'

The rare artifact is about the size of a small chocolate and made of glass, which shines blue when illuminated. (DigVenture/Durham University)

A team of archeologists have unearthed a glass artifact they believe is a piece from a 1,200-year-old board game.

The rounded piece is made of blue and white glass. It has white swirly lines on it and little antenna-like balls that protrude from the top.

The rare artifact was found last year during an archeological dig on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England.

David Petts is an archeologist who was part of that excavation. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the unusual piece and who might have been playing games with it.

Here is part of their conversation.

Take us back to the day that this gaming piece was found on the island. What happened at that site? 

Frustratingly, it was one day I wasn't actually on the site. I got sent a photograph while I was in a supermarket car park showing this beautiful little glass object. 

It had actually been found by the mother of one of our site directors. She'd been volunteering with us for the day. She found this while she was trowelling in one of our trenches. So it was an absolutely lovely surprise.

Professor Petts says a volunteer discovered the game piece while they were working at the excavation site and 'this little object popped out.' (DigVenture/Durham University)

How deep was this buried and how hard was it for her to uncover?

It was remarkably easy.

Where we're digging we don't have to go down very far at all before we're into the archeology. So we were cleaning up around some stones, which might be part of the wall, and just in the course of that very simple process this little object popped out.

How unusual is it to find a piece specifically like this?

There's maybe two or three from Britain and Ireland and a handful of similar ones from the rest of Europe.

They do find much more simple examples. But to find a really intricate nice one like the one we found is exceptionally rare.

Because of the decorative white bubbles on its top, Professor Petts thinks the gaming artifact might have been a king piece. (DigVenture/Durham University)

Now, you've determined this is a game piece. How was the game piece used?

In this period, they had a series of related board games and they're kind of strategy games where you've got two sides and one side has a king and the king is trying to escape from the other side. He's trying to get to the edge of the board game.

So it's kind of almost like a very simple war game. And we think that our piece, because it had those particularly nice little decorative bubbles, was probably one of the king pieces.

You're dating this piece to the year 700 to 900, somewhere in there. What was going on on the island at this time?

Lindisfarne's best known for being the site of a really important early medieval monastery. Some of your listeners might have heard of something called the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is one of the great works of the early medieval decorative art. It's an illuminated manuscript, so beautifully decorated with lots of decorative letters and illustrations.

And Lindisfarne, where these works of art were created, it was a major monastery. It was an economic centre. It was a royal site. There was an awful lot going on in what's now quite a small, small village.

The game piece along with some of the other artifacts discovered at the excavation site. (DigVenture/Durham University)

So it sounds like quite a few people would have come through there then. Who do you think might have been playing the game?

We certainly know that at least one king, Anglo Saxon king, actually retired to Lindisfarne. Most Anglo Saxon kings tended to die in battle. But if they could have got old enough, sometimes they retired and he would have moved to the monastery [and] lived out his life in peace.

We certainly know there would have been pilgrims and aristocratic visitors to somewhere like Lindisfarne. It could even have been used by one of the more important monks themselves.

There have been some stories suggesting it might have been Vikings who brought the game piece while they were raiding. You don't buy that?

There's a kind of shared culture across the North Sea area in this period. So actually some of the things Vikings are using weren't that different from the things the Anglo Saxons were using.

So our little game piece, it could potentially be Viking, but we couldn't say for certain. It just sits, quite comfortably, in the range of nice items used by the aristocrats of the North Sea World in this period.

You said this is rare. Tell me the significance of this piece and what its finding actually means.

I think for us it helps us remind people of the importance of somewhere like Lindisfarne. People tend to think of early medieval monasteries as being very remote and very austere. And certainly, for some monks that would have been true.

But as I said, there were also royal residences where kings retired to. They would have seen merchants and traders and, of course, ultimately raiders coming through. So these are the kind crossroads of the early medieval world and I think that's all encapsulated in this one little, tiny playing piece.

Where is the game piece going to end up?

Hopefully back on the island. There's a visitor centre and there's a little museum and I'm really keen that all these objects don't end up in a museum off the island. We want to bring them back so the visitors and the islanders can can see it.

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.