Viking graves are often found to contain gaming pieces and dice. These can be made of valuable materials such as glass, antler, ivory, amber or horn. On the island of Lewis a total of 78 carved chessmen made of walrus ivory were found. But the gaming pieces could also be cheap objects made of stone, potsherds, nuts and other small items.
Examples have also been found of gaming boards. From Aarhus there is a plank with a game engraved on it. This resembles a game which we know today as Nine men's morris. The saga texts mention the games halatavl, nefatavl and chess. The first two are unknown to us today, and the sagas reveal very little about the rules for these games, but we can make use of later sources and our own imagination. In 1732, the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné encountered a game resembling nefatavl being played in Lapland. The 700 years which elapsed between the Viking Age and 1732 represent, of course, a very long time and it is not certain that the rules survived for so long, but this is the best source we have.
- Draw one or more of the chess pieces found on Lewis.
- Make a simple "chess set": Draw 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 castles and 19 pawns. You can play the game like the English game of snap, in which the cards are dealt out to the number of people wanting to play. The players place their cards in a stack in front of them, reverse side upwards. All the players take their top card and turn it over in the middle of the table. If one or more of the cards are the same the players shout snap and slap their hands down over the cards. The first player to do this takes all the cards. If none of the cards are the same, they are left in the middle of the table and the game continues with the next card. The winner is the player at the end of the game with all the cards.
- Another way of playing is to make the same number of cards of each of the different persons (king, queen etc.), but in this game, the king is the highest card, the queen next-highest, and so on down to the lowest – the pawn. The players then each turn over a card in the middle of the table and the player with highest card takes all the other players’ cards. If two players have cards of the same value, then all the players turn another card and the player with the highest card this time takes all the cards – also those from the previous round. The player with all the cards at the end of the game is the winner.
- Draw a game board with the Midgard Serpent on it. Let the serpent's body be the "route", divided into squares, which the players have to follow according to throws of a dice. On the way, squares can be made where the player is either sent backwards or moved forwards. The text on these squares could for example be "You have been blown off course by a storm – move seven squares backwards" or "You have found some hidden church silver and can buy a horse – move three squares forwards.
- Invent a new game inspired by the Lewis chessmen. They could be used as gaming pieces.
- Make your own pieces for Nine men’s morris or Nefatavl. You could form the pieces from clay and fire them in a tin can with straw. The can should be sealed with a grass turf and then placed in the embers of a fire or in a stove.
- Gaming pieces can also be made of bone. You could obtain some small sheep foot bones from the butcher. Boil them for three hours then clean them. You can also cut gaming pieces out of larger bones such as cattle bones.
- Finally, the pieces could just as well be stones or shells which you find on the beach.
The rules for Nine men's morris can be printed out here from the website, and the rules for Nefatavl are to be found at http://www.nefatavl.dk/english.html.
This exercise contains suggestions for practical activities as well as the worksheet Nine men's morris and Tic Tac Toe.
It deals with topics such as:
- Viking leisure time
- Life on board
The following places and articles may help in solving the exercise:
Holumen and crew, Lewis and Aarhus. Pupils can find rules for other games from the Viking Age, such as Hnefatafl and Kub, on the Internet.
Subjects: Art, History.
Suitable for age: 10-15 years.