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Board games in Anglo-Saxon England? Rare 7th-century gaming piece discovered

Board games in Anglo-Saxon England? Rare 7th-century gaming piece discovered

Archaeologists in England have discovered an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon board gaming piece, which would have been used in a game similar to that of backgammon or draughts.

The find comes from the Lyminge Archaeological Project, which last year unearthed a late 6th / early 7th-century feasting hall in Lyminge, Kent. The project, which is being run by the University of Reading, also has discovered jewellery, numerous fragments of luxury vessel glass and pits with animal bones.

The Anglo-Saxon’s had a strong tradition of playing board games. Individual gaming pieces, and sometimes complete sets in burials of the period, have been discovered. However not only is the piece the first of this type to be found since the Victorian period, it is the first ever piece to be discovered in a ‘gaming’ setting, an Anglo-Saxon Royal Hall.

Beautifully crafted from a hollow cylinder of bone, the piece has delicate lathe-turned end caps secured with a central bronze rivet. It is difficult to establish the precise nature of the games played given a lack of contemporary written descriptions, but archaeological evidence from the Germanic continent, the cultural home of the Anglo-Saxons, provides clues.

Both Tabula, a form of backgammon and latrunculi, the aim being to capture the opponent’s pieces, can be traced to these regions and were likely transported to England during the fifth century as a consequence of Anglo-Saxon migrations.

Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading, who is leading the project, explained “Our excavation is providing an unprecedented picture of life in an Anglo-Saxon royal complex. Gaming, along with feasting, drinking, and music, formed one of the key entertainments of the Anglo-Saxon mead-hall as evoked in the poem Beowulf.

“The discovery of Anglo-Saxon gaming-pieces and gaming-boards has previously been restricted to male burials, particularly those of the Anglo-Saxon elite. To find such a well preserved example in the hall, where such board games were actually played, is a wonderfully evocative discovery.”

Lyminge’s royal complex first emerged in 2012 with the spectacular discovery of an Anglo-Saxon feasting hall, the first such building to be excavated in its entirely in over a generation. This year’s dig on an adjacent site also revealed remarkable evidence for the core of the royal complex.

The researchers discovered a sequence of three timber halls, bearing unusual and highly elaborate architectural features. This included mortar and crushed tile floors (opus signinum) previously only seen in the earliest generation of Anglo-Saxon churches, and massive entrance portals on a scale previously unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England.

Dr Thomas added, “By combining these fascinating structural remains with a stunning array of artefacts, our excavations are providing new insights into the role played by Anglo-Saxon royal complexes in forging kingdoms and royal dynasties during this key period in English history.”

The Lyminge Archaeological Project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and supported by project partners Kent Archaeological Society and staff from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The final year of the dig begins next summer.

See also our earlier article Anglo-Saxon feasting hall discovered in Kent

Sources: University of Reading, Arts and Humanities Research Council


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