Reconstructing a 12th century Scandinavian game board


One of my favorite projects so far, and certainly one that has gotten a huge response from the public, is my 12th century Scandinavian game set, including hnefatafl on one side of the board and chess on the other. I gave an overview of this project earlier, but now I would like to take a closer look at the board itself. Here, I will discuss the form of the board, selection of materials, construction techniques and decoration.

The main inspiration for this project was a brief passage from Króka-Refs saga, telling of a tanntafl, or game made from walrus ivory (tand in Old Norse means “tooth” or “tusk” and tafl means “board game”) made by a Greenlander named Gunnar as a gift for King Harald of Norway. Nothing else is detailed about this game in the saga except that the saga writer noted: Það var bæði hneftafl og skáktafl. (It was both hnefatafl and chess.) I found this quite interesting, since chess was the game that dethroned hnefatafl as the preeminent board game of the gods and kings of the North. Since this game is called a tanntafl, we must consider the possibility that the very board itself could have been made of ivory, sliced lengthwise into panels and fitted together like the famous Franks casket, though this is not necessarily the case. Although the Old Norse word tafl, cognate of English table, means “board game”, evidence elsewhere indicates that this word referred to a game broadly, not specifically to the board upon which the game is played. The term tanntafl in Króka-Refs saga, in my opinion, is as likely to refer to carved ivory game counters as to the board itself, so I think the board may just as likely have been constructed of another material, perhaps wood or slate, but the game counters were almost certainly made of walrus ivory. Although an ivory board would certainly be impressive to the absolute extreme, ivory is somewhat difficult to obtain these days, so the decision to use wood for this project was one I settled on rather easily.

The board I used was constructed primarily of three planks of red oak, tongue and groove joined together. This was actually an old board that I had put together in 2008 for a project where I was going to attempt a reconstruction of the gaming board recovered from the Gokstad ship burial (circa 900), which was marked for nine men morris on one side and another game, thought to be hnefatafl, on the other. Since I moved to the Far West in early 2009, that project was abandoned and sat unfinished for the intervening years until I picked up the oak board in 2012 and decided to use it for this project. Given the lack of detail known about the board mentioned in Króka-Refs saga, the board from the Gokstad ship (replacing nine men morris with chess) may actually serve as an appropriate model. This board is fragmentary but was probably made of three panels of oak, bound together with an oak trim applied along the edges of both faces of the board and secured by rivets.



Although my original plan was to reproduce this board, I decided to take it in a new direction, employing tongue and groove joinery to provide greater strength and durability. This was more than an attempt at reconstructing an extant game board, now it was a project with a life of its own, the ultimate goal of which was to make a royal gift for friends to be able to take to SCA events and play with for many years to come. Thus, I wanted to build the toughest board I could possibly make. So I tried looking at the board with new eyes and thinking, “If I were a medieval gamesmith making a gaming board as a royal gift in the 12th century, how would I build the nicest and strongest board I could make?” Lacking any specific measurements, I was liberated to select any dimensions I might determine appropriate for the project. I made the panel 15″ x 15″ (38cm x 38cm), with hand-cut tongue and groove joints between the three planks, then I drew the lines in pencil, carved them with a V-gouge hand chisel, rubbed the whole panel with linseed oil and then stained the lines red (rubbing with linseed oil first helped to prevent accidental overstaining outside the grooves). Finally, I shaved a 1/2″ (12.7mm) wide border around the 1/2″ thick panel to 3/8″ (9.5mm) thickness, cut a 3/8″ wide by 1/2″ deep groove into a 3/4″ thick trim and secured these (1-1/2″ (38mm) wide by 3/4″ (19mm) thick) pieces of red oak trim to the edges using tongue and groove joinery and mitered corners. To further improve durability I reinforced the corners with 1/4″ (6.35mm) red oak doweling, set at 45° to the corners. I considered putting two dowels at each corner, one near the corner of the inner panel and one closer to the outer corner, but I decided that would be overkill. Even with a jig that I cut from a block of scrap wood (see below) drilling these 45° holes for doweling was not easy, and I had come too far to make a tragic mistake now for the sake of overkill.

ImageI made a mitered doweling jig from a block of scrap wood, and I snapped a photo when it was done, but unfortunately between the photo dump and the recent hard drive crash, that photo has already been lost, and the jig has been misplaced. It was a simple thing, easily recreated though. Basically, I took a block of scrap and cut it to about 2-1/2″ x 2-1/2″ (63.5mm x 63.5mm), then drilled it through with a 1/4″ bit (the width of the doweling) on the drill press with a 3/8″ offset from the edge to the center of the hole (half the width of the 3/4″ trim to be drilled through). Then I measured 1-3/4″ into the middle of the drilled block, to establish the corner of a right triangle, with 45° angles from this point to the edge. After cutting out this triangular void to accommodate the corner of the game board, I cut 45° heels off of the corners of the block. These heels provide a perch for bar clamps to secure the jig to the corner of the board, with one clamp running the length of the game board and the other running its width, securely holding the jig in place during drilling.

I glued the tongue and groove joints using Tite-Bond liquid hide glue, because this is a close modern equivalent to medieval wood glue, and clamped the board using six bar clamps (three along the length and three across the width). Since one of the mitered joints was being a little stubborn about lining up when they were assembled, I applied a little hide glue into it and clamped it snugly with a wooden clamp across the joint during clamping of the other joints. Once all the clamps came off, this miter held with flush surfaces, and the doweling now holds it secure in its alignment.



After gluing and clamping was done, the corners were drilled and doweled, and then the board was structurally completed. I did a little light sanding, just to round off the corners and smooth those mitered corners a little. Then I rubbed the whole thing with linseed oil, and then it was time to carve the runes into the trim. Since the saga mentions of hnefatafl detail that the defending pieces were a red-brown color and the defenders a “fair” color, I elected to retain this color scheme in my game pieces and apply the same red-brown color to the markings on the board, including the lattice and the runic inscription. These runes, like a runestone, commemorated an occasion. Since this board, like Gunnar’s gift to Harald, was a royal gift of friendship, I decided to commemorate the occasion of my friends Garick and Yasamin’s reign as King and Queen of the Outlands. Since the board is based on the period when chess replaced hnefatafl, which my research indicates occurred around the first half of the 12th century (despite Króka-Refs saga’s indication that this may have occurred as early as Harald’s mid-11th century reign), I decided to again focus on the language and writing of that period. Thus, I arrived at an Old Icelandic inscription set in 12th century runes. These are not the Younger Futhark, but rather a later set of runes, developed after the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia, which were further influenced by Latin writing.

ImageThe message I inscribed reads:

Gort af Wilhelm clear

An uncheckered chess board

I have been asked why the chess side of the board is not checkered. As we have seen, games played on a latticed board (such as hnefatafl variants) were known to Scandinavians in the Iron Age and Viking Age, and these boards were not checkered. I have never seen any evidence that hnefatafl boards were ever checkered, which is why I doubt that the board found within the Gokstad ship really was a hnefatafl board (note the pattern of voided spaces). As I have already discussed elsewhere, I believe skáktafl or chess was carried to Scandinavia by warriors returning from the Norwegian Crusade (1107-1110), who had learnt the game in Jerusalem. I think King Baldwin learned the game from his Persian rivals and probably taught the game to King Sigurd during the latter’s stay in Jerusalem. Archaeological evidence of chess appears in Norway around 1110-1120, and those chess pieces believed to have been manufactured in Norway before 1150 follow the general form of Persian shatranj pieces, incorporating the dot-in-ring motif familiar to Viking Age materials. It stands to reason then that the earliest Scandinavian chess boards would also have followed the form of Persian shatranj boards. Shatranj in the 12th century was played on an uncheckered latticed board of 64 cells (eight rows and eight columns). Chess historian Richard Eales tells us that the black and white checkered board was a European innovation from around 1200 CE (Chess: The History of a Game, p. 69). The Persian Treatise on Chess (RAS Persian Codrington cat. ms. no. 211) includes images of shatranj boards that show an uncheckered lattice (these images are reproduced in Harry Golombek’s Chess: A History, pp. 36 & 53). By contrast, several images of chess boards are included in Alfonso X’s Libro de los juegos (c. 1283), each of these showing a checkered board. Golombek tells us that a contemporaneous work of equally broad influence was the manuscript known as Ludus Scacchorum, but points to an older text titled Ouaedam moralitas de scaccario, from Lombardy in the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), which contained the passage: “The world resembles a chess-board which is checkered white and black, the colours showing the two conditions of life and death, or praise and blame.” Certainly this would indicate that at least in Italy, chess boards were checkered by about 1200 CE. The 11th century Versus de scachis from the Einsiedeln monastery in Switzerland mentions that the board was sometimes checkered (Golombek, p. 68). Just when the checkered board made its way north to Scandinavia remains unclear to me, but from the clues I have been able to find I am confident that it was no earlier than the manufacture of the Lewis chessmen (c. 1150).


2 responses to “Reconstructing a 12th century Scandinavian game board

  1. Pingback: Hnefatafl jako bitevní simulátor | Forlǫg·

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