Gokstad ship game board fragment

A clinker built ship, measuring 23.8 m long and 5.1 m wide, was discovered in a burial mound at the Gokstad farm near Sandefjord in southern Norway in 1880. Dendrochronological analysis suggests the ship was built in the late 9th century. Human remains found within a bed chamber may belong to a 9th century king of Vestfold, presumably the owner of the ship. Several goods were found aboard the ship, including a surviving fragment of a wooden game board. This board fragment bears a portion of a nine men morris court on one side and a latticed game board surface on the other side, measuring four rows wide by thirteen rows long. Eight cells of the remnant are incised with geometric patterns, arranged in irregular intervals. While most commenters presume that this was a hnefatafl board, I have some doubts. To summarize, the markings are exceptional among hnefatafl boards, and while they are symmetrical along both the x-axis and the y-axis, these show differences between the two axes, therefor lacking the orthogonal symmetry expected of a hnefatafl game. Could this really be the only remaining evidence of an undocumented prehistoric board game? I must analyze this further in another post.


I recently reconstructed this board by extrapolating the pattern out into a complete board, using the proportions of the nine men morris court on the reverse as a guide to confirm that the original lattice would have measured thirteen by thirteen cells. The quality of carving in the marked cells, the carved flourishes at the nodes of the morris court, and the overall precision of symmetry observed in both sides of this board all suggest professional manufacture by a skilled craftsman, in contrast to the amateurish Toftanes board. The crisp, straight lines and precision of orthogonal symmetry suggest that a rigid physical reference was used in placing the game board markings. The margins suggest that the edges may have been reinforced with an external trim like that of the Trondheim board. My overall impression is that this board was made of a quality befitting a petty king of 9th century Norway.


Those marked cells are puzzling. Chess appears to have been unknown to Scandinavians before the early 12th century, this game board was made much earlier, and even early chess boards were not checkered. I have seen no evidence of early Scandinavian game boards being marked simply for visual reference, but rather each marked space within the playing surface usually tells us something about how the game was played. Many hnefatafl boards are marked at the center where the king starts, which may or may not have been a closed space, and some are marked at the corners, which may have been the king’s objectives. But the Gokstad ship board has a large number of marked spaces strewn across its surface. If these are closed spaces, could these represent trees and mountains around which the king must navigate to make his escape? That strikes me as one real possibility, but given the lack of orthogonal symmetry, I must also acknowledge the possibility that this could have been another game altogether.  I would not suspect a chess variant, because the introduction of chess to Norway can be dated to the early 12th century with a reasonable degree of certainty, and because chess variants are played on an 8×8 board, not 13×13. Latrunculi was known in Roman Iron Age Britannia, and Bell notes a few different board sizes. Not to suggest Viking Age Norwegians would have played the ancient Roman game, but perhaps they were playing a later derivative. If so, this board would seem to be the sole surviving evidence of that game. It is also possible this board could be the sole surviving evidence of some other, completely unrelated game of prehistoric Scandinavian invention.


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