Reconstructing a medieval Baltic tafl game

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I took part in an artisan exchange in the Outlands called KAOS (think of a “secret Santa” type exchange between the artisans of the kingdom, randomly paired). The theme of the exchange was “in the palm of my hand,” meaning projects could include anything worn on the hand, used by the hand, or small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. My selected recipient has a Baltic persona with registered arms, so I decided to make a Baltic tafl variant as a handheld pouch game decorated with elements of her personal heraldry.

 

The first challenge was to come up with a design that was both authentic and budget-friendly. The small size of this project allowed me to use relatively expensive materials which were left over from other, larger projects. I have some linen left over from a quilted arming cap project (an arming cap is the liner of a steel helmet), and I have read of some games played on embroidered mats, chiefly Linnaeus’s account of tablut being played by 18th century Såmi reindeer herders on a mat of embroidered reindeer hide. Since linen was one of the most plentiful materials in medieval Baltic markets, I decided an embroidered linen mat, with a drawstring to double as a pouch for carrying, was an appropriate medium for this project. Since the linen was scrap from another project, it’s cost to me was virtually nil. Knowing that amber was another material frequently traded in the Baltic region – the Baltic Sea itself was in fact the largest source of raw amber – and that many spherical or hemispherical lumps of amber have been identified as tafl stones, I decided a few pieces each of light and dark colored Baltic amber would be the most appropriate material for the playing pieces. This left only the embroidery floss to be purchased. Embroidery is a new medium for me, so I do not know the best sources for period materials. I decided to keep it simple and stay within my strict budget by going to my local Michael’s and picking up some cheap cotton embroidery floss. I know in period wool and silk were more common materials for embroidery, and for this sort of project silk would be the material of choice, but again I just did not have silk floss cheaply and easily available to me.

 

Once materials were obtained, the next step was to craft a game design which was appropriate to both the theme of the exchange and the period and region of the recipient’s persona. Relatively little is documented of Lithuanian and Livonian archaeological remains of tafl games, among English language sources, so I cannot say with any authority that one variant or another is “the Baltic game.” Assuming all tafl variants to be within the scope of what may have been found in this region, I decided to use the small board of 7×7 positions to make a compact handheld game. On a board of only 7×7 spaces, real estate is at a premium, and it is simply too tight for a 16:8 game, only an 8:4 game is really playable on that board. This is also good news for my budget, as it means using about half the amber of the larger game. The decorative versatility of using embroidered cloth as the primary medium allowed me to use virtually any decorative motif I might choose, so I decided to employ the ultimate personalization by incorporating elements of the recipient’s personal heraldry into the design of the board. I made a version of the Linnaeus board scaled down slightly to 7×7 (the original was 9×9 spaces), using linden leaves to mark the attacker camps, crescents to mark the corner citadels and a Lithuanian cross to mark the king’s hall in the center of the board, as these were all charges used in the recipient’s arms. These spaces may have had some special properties (as discussed further elsewhere) indicated by their markings.

 

The final step, once the embroidery was finished, was to trim the cloth to a circular shape, bind the edge with a rolled edge and a tight whip stitch, pierce the margin with eyelets and add a drawstring, and bind a couple extra pieces of amber together for a king piece. Given the very small size of the amber pieces (less than 1cm) I decided to use an extra scrap of linen to make an even smaller pouch to secure the pieces so that none may fall out of the larger pouch in carrying. The material cost was completely negligible and it only took me less than an hour total time to design and produce a simple pouch. For the eyelet holes, I used an awl (basically an ice pick) to pierce the linen, as this pushes the fibers of the cloth aside rather than breaking any fibers, contributing greatly to the durability of the product. After piercing with the awl I simply bound these with a whip stitch using fine linen thread. The drawstring I used was an extra bit of hemp cord, though a heavy linen cord would have been equally period appropriate. In general, linen cord saw a lot of use on land while hemp cord was more frequently used in marine applications due to its resistance to rot in wet environments, but both materials were known to medieval Baltic traders.

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