The other day, I collected the larger finds from 2005’s boat grave excavations at the conservator’s studio. Among them are 23 amber gaming pieces, of which I have now taken nice photographs. The pieces’ median dimensions are about 35 by 24 mm.
If it weren’t for these gaming pieces, the boat grave dig myself and Howard Williams directed at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, would have been quite a disappointment for me. The other grave furnishings were few and understated, consisting mainly of a symbolic (indeed, incomplete) set of horse and driving gear. But these gaming pieces are really something! I quote from the report:
The surest indication of the grave’s date is the design of the gaming pieces. Pre-Christian amber gaming pieces are only known from Viking Period contexts in Sweden. The only known grave find before Skamby was Birka 524, a Middle Viking Period (10th century) weapon inhumation with 15 amber gaming pieces. The pieces from the Björkö grave however have a narrowed base, unlike the ones from Skamby that are widest at the base. This trait along with their size connects them to Vendel Period gaming pieces. The likeliest date for the Skamby gaming pieces is thus the Early Viking Period (9th century).
To my mind, the find resolves a little debate that has gone on for decades. Most 1st Millennium graves with gaming pieces contain rather few of them, generally made of bone, and usually they can’t be divided into distinctive groups for different players. It’s been suggested that half of the pieces were painted and that the paint has since decomposed.
The Skamby amber pieces are highly unlikely to ever have been painted. Instead, I believe that each player owned his pieces, and that when it was time to sit down for a game of hnefatafl, each player took out his own set. This gave a player the opportunity to impress his opponent with the fine make and expensive material of his pieces, after which the other guy would try to get even by winning the actual game. This would explain why the pieces found in graves are mostly all alike: it’s only one personal set each.