Norse Hnefatafl Board in Oak

FB_IMG_1565960623460I’m a geek at heart (just like the rest of you Scadians out there) and one of my passions is board games. Well, I started learning about Hnefatafl (lovingly called Viking Chess by some) online and I was really interested. Then I learned my calculus professor in college studied board game math (way over my head btw) and one of the games he was researching was Hnefatafl. I geeked out really hard with him in office hours!

Around this time I also was exploring the art of lampworking and beginning to make glass beads, trying to replicate viking age finds. This art was haaaarrrd to start. I was constantly shocking glass and burning myself and my carpet and everything around me and too shy to ask advice from those who are more experienced than I…. but I’ll talk more about my adventures in glass in a later post. I did, however, find out that game pieces on Hnefatafl boards were often made of glass.

I decided that I wanted to create a useable game board with glass pieces and ended up entering it in the local arts and sciences competition (and became Malagentia’s A&S champion that year!)

Instead of rewording everything I did, I’m going to include my documentation for this project. I would love feedback or questions if you have any. Otherwise I hope you enjoy!

(P.S. I usually bring this to events if you want to see or play it!)

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Items in entry:

-An oak board with an 11 by 11 Hnefatafl board hand carved into the surface painted with black and blue milk paint.

-37 pieces created by hand using lampworking techniques including: 

-24 glass pieces in a yellow-green color (attackers)

-12 glass pieces in a blue color (defenders)

-1 King (defender)

Background

Hnefatafl or King’s Table was a “chess-like” game played during the viking age in scandinavia. Children and adults as well as men and women (1) all played this game which involved a large force of attackers (24 attackers in this example) against a smaller force of defenders (12 defenders and a king in this example). The objective for the defenders is to help the king escape the board through one of the corners and the objective for the attackers is to capture the king. There are different versions of the game that include boards as small as 7 by 7 and as large as 15 by 15 and a variety of sizes of forces. In some versions dice were also used to restrict or control distance of movement. 

Tafl boards have been found made of stone, bone, and wood but very few complete boards have survived time. Some pieces have been found made of a variety of materials such as glass, bone, antler, stone, amber, and horse teeth (2).  

Description: 

    I decided to use oak because it was a wood available during the viking age (3) for a variety of purposes. Unfortunately, since there were so few wooden boards found due to how fast wood decomposes, there isn’t a large sample size to pull from. One board found was carved into spruce, which I attempted to use previously but, because of the softness of this wood I had a hard time carving it without splintering. I had more success getting clean lines with oak. 

          This was my first attempt at carving wood and it was a learning experience. I used hand carving tools that were similar to what a norse person would use.  I found later that the v-shaped gouge I used wasn’t invented yet during the time period I was aiming for but a u-shaped gouge had been invented. I could have easily substituted the tools and it would not have dramatically changed the appearance of the finished piece. 

          I chose to paint inside the wooden carved lines because it makes it easier to define the game spaces and the norse frequently painted their wooden carvings (3). I used casein paint because it seems feasible that the norse would have mixed pigments with casein because casein, found in milk would have likely been available and is fairly durable and long lasting.

    I made the glass pieces using lampworking techniques which is a skill that I have been working on for other projects. There were many finds of glass pieces because they don’t decompose as easily as some other materials. It is possible that glass was used because it was a valuable resource that would allow one to show off their wealth, it was available, and with careful care, it would last a long time . There were 20 glass pieces that were found in Sweden at Birka grave 523 (2) that appear to have been created on a mandrel similar to what I used. I used a modern torch and propane where a more period technique would have been a clay glass oven. 

          I decided to use blue glass for the attackers because a dark blue was frequently used in game piece artifacts and it is a dark color that I liked. The opposing force were generally created in a lighter color. I used a yellow color because the contrast was appealing. Another option would have been a light blue because there were a number of light blue / dark blue game sets found. There was a dark blue and yellow set found in Norway that dates back to the 8th century. This made yellow especially appealing to me because my persona is from Norway.

References:

1)  Viking Answer Lady- King’s Table: Game of the Noble Scandinavians (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/games.shtml)

2) Looking For Evidence: Viking Game Pieces (https://sites.google.com/site/archoevidence/home/viking-games-pieces

3) Viking Answer Lady- Woodworking in the Viking Age (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml)

Author: Embla / Lacey

I'm a 30 year old with a lot going on! I hope to share some of it with you!

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